THE PHILOSOPHY OF OPTIMISM
As we enter a new year I thought how many of us will be thinking ‘here we go again’. Perhaps looking ahead to the next twelve months with a gloomy sense of pessimism as if we expect nothing good to happen. We each have our burden to bear in this life, some more than others, but surely we owe it to ourselves to positively affirm our existence by personal effort. It is easy not to try, to look on our misfortunes as a kind of inevitable curse from which we are doomed never to escape. So adopting a negative attitude we accept failure and as Christina Rossetti observed, wonder ‘Does the road wind uphill all the way? Right to the very end?’ Thus turning our lives into a daily grind as we endure the struggle instead of enjoying the challenge.
Life should not be just drudgery and toil. We are, each one of us, an individual miracle. Why then do so many of us allow ourselves to be disheartened when faced with what are really minor difficulties compared to the odds against our being born in the first place? The answer to that question has been sought by numerous philosophers over the centuries with many seeming to see the human condition as one of pointless desolation. Consider what Aristotle (384-322 BC) the Greek philosopher said ‘It is better not to have been born, and death is better than life’. Then we have John Paul Sartre (1905-80) stating almost that life is meaningless and ‘man is a useless passion’…’hell is other people’. Sartre’s hopeless existentialism offers this thought to mankind: ‘Human life begins on the far side of despair’.
Arguing against the pessimistic philosophy of Sartre and his school of existentialist doom and gloom is Colin Wilson and his philosophy of optimism. Wilson, who first found literary fame in 1956 with his international best-selling book ‘The Outsider’, offers a far more hopeful antidote to Sarte’s despair. Wilson proposes that there should be a philosophy of optimism that is based on the teachings of the psychologist Abraham Maslow. Whilst practicing as a psychologist in the USA Maslow arrived at a unique conclusion. He realized that all the patients he was seeing were suffering from some form of malaise be that depression, anxiety, paranoia or whatever. He, as the psychologist, was attempting to bring them back to normality. Then he asked himself the question why was it that many people were not depressed, paranoid etc. What was it about these people that stopped them suffering from anxiety etc. So Maslow began to study ‘normal’ people in an attempt to find why this was so.
One thing that Maslow noted about individuals who were coping with life was that they reported enjoying moments of delight. That is they had periods of enhanced perception, peak experiences that made them feel good about themselves and the world in general. Such experiences encouraged them to be optimistic. Those that were not coping, the clinically depressed, did not report such moments and were morbidly pessimistic.
We may imagine that it is difficult to achieve a peak experience, when we perceive that we have just received absurd good news and the world is wonderful place. Wilson argues that it is not as problematical as we may think. Citing the writer Mark Twain, Wilson gives an example of the character Tom Sawyer who is required to paint a fence. Now painting a wooden fence is, one would think, a rather mundane task and hardly likely to bring any form of inspirational insight. But Mark Twain has Sawyer undertake this task with great enthusiasm, whistling whilst he vigorously paints making the job seem so much fun that people passing ask for a go with the brush. Some pay Tom Sawyer to let them enjoy the experience of painting that fence and give him strange things that any boy would love, such as a dead cat, a ball of string, a penknife etc. The point that Mark Twain is making and Wilson is explaining, is that most situations in life can be turned into wonderfully rewarding experiences if we apply ourselves to them in a meaningful manner. Tom Sawyer made it appear that painting a fence made him happy, he did this by adopting a carefree attitude and displaying this to the world by whistling a jolly tune. By so doing he became happy, turning a mundane task into a peak experience.
The argument that Wilson is putting forward to support his philosophy of optimism is relatively simple. If we adopt a positive frame of mind and pay attention to the detail of the daily duties, tasks and personal interactions that constitute our days, then we will alter our perception. Most of us do not do that, pay attention that is. We allow our lives to run on automatic pilot, missing 90% of the detail seeing only the outline of the life we are supposed to be living. By concentrating on each task, each conversation, each moment in fact we become aware and by so doing enjoy even the most boring of duties.
As an example from my own life, I recently decided to valet my car. This is hardly an intellectual exercise and I imagined it would be extremely dull, but I set about the job enthusiastically. I bought chrome cleaner for the wire wheels, special wax for the body, Canadian bees-wax for the leather seats and all manner of dusters to polish the paintwork. Then, one fine morning, I went out and started work. I washed the car down with light shampoo, hosed it off and buffed it dry. Then applied the Simoniz Wax and polished the bonnet etc. It was as I was applying the chrome cleaner to the wire wheels that I noticed someone was standing behind me watching. ‘What an amazing car’ the elderly gentleman said ‘I used to have one of these in the sixties, can I sit inside?’ Having done so the man told me how much fun he and his wife had all those years ago driving round in their own car. We passed a happy half hour exchanging anecdotes and then he had to go. As I stood watching him walk away I thought for a moment what a happy morning I had just enjoyed and all because I had undertaken a mundane task with optimistic enthusiasm.
Might I be so bold as to suggest that we each make a resolution to adopt Wilson’s optimistic and positive approach to our lives in the New Year. We do owe it to ourselves to pay attention to what we do with our limited time. If we put in 100% effort to even the most seemingly boring of tasks we will enjoy life so much more. So the next time you paint a fence, clean your car or undertake any duty do so enthusiastically and you may be amazed at how much joy you get from the experience. One thing is for certain, adopt the philosophy of optimism and you will never be depressed again, you won’t have time!
I am John G. Sutton and you can read more of my work on the world wide web at Psychicworld.net You can read the book: Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism by Brad Spurgeon published by Michael Butterworth ISBN 0-9552672-0-X available at bookstores or your local library.