Once, my family got a pair of gerbils. Someone didn’t do a gender check. Not long after, we had many more gerbils. Someone else decided that it would be a fine idea to put them in a metal bin with a mismatched screen on the front porch.
One day, we saw a black snake happily coiled up in one corner of the bin, with three conspicuous lumps in it, and the remaining gerbils cowering in the other corner.
Now, imagine this conversation between those gerbils:
“There’s a snake in here that wants to eat us.”
“Why are you so upset!? You’re still alive! Most of this cage is still snake free. Why aren’t you talking about all of the good parts of the cage?”
“Well, I think the snake could really easily slither into the good parts of the cage.”
“I don’t like all this negativity. I hate to say it, but you’re part of the problem.”
“The SNAKE is the problem! It just ate three of us!”
“He’s not eating you now! You should be grateful you’re not one of those lumps!”
One of these gerbils is a pseudo-optimist.
(Epilogue: my Dad killed the snake and buried it. A couple of my younger siblings immediately dug up the snake, chopped it in half, and squeezed out two gerbil wads, hoping to save them. That, I think, might be real optimism.)
When Did Denial and Delusion Become Virtues?
Pseudo-optimism isn’t about fostering virtues like resilience, grit, confidence, or some riff on turning lemons into lemonade. This is about deleting tons and tons of inconvenient facts in favor of a comforting delusion, one that filters in favor of the self and rewrites the story at every turn.
If a serial killer comes into your house, and your neighbor’s daughter is playing with your daughter, and the serial killer happens to target the neighbor’s daughter first, is your first instinct to feel gratitude and celebrate, or to stop the serial killer with everything you’ve got? This obviously extreme example of the problem demonstrates what pseudo-optimism is at its most basic: pathological self-centeredness.
Faith-Based First World Problems
Pseudo-optimists who prefer a more traditional opiate for the masses will thank God when he answers their prayer about winning a touchdown at a high-school football game. “The LORD was just really looking out for us tonight!” But while the LORD was looking out for them, boys were recruited into child armies, girls were kidnapped by sex traffickers, and millions of people continued to starve. Many of those suffering people were praying, too, and a hell of a lot more fervently.
Why such mercy to the football player, and such violence to the 7 year old prostitute-in-training? Because “His ways are higher?” Or because our first world privileges have given us a delusional sense of self-importance?
True Optimism Has Been Twisted, Marked Up, and Sold Back To Us By the Self-Help Industry
Success coaches of all stripes encourage this sort of blindness as one of the fundamentals of success. You can’t waste time thinking about kids who are moaning under chemotherapy on Christmas morning, families being executed by machetes one by one while the others watch, a Middle Eastern mother who is weeping over their remains of her little boy who stepped too close to an American bomb.
No, you’ve got to set your vision, each and every day, to that brass ring, that new mansion, your name in print, that trophy wife. You need short, medium, and long term goals, vision boards, time management apps, success coaches, success accountability partners, sticky-note affirmations on your mirrors and in your shoes.
Or, you don’t need any of that, because maybe believing in your vision is like a genie in lamp; maybe the universe is just itching for the chance to give you everything you could ever want; maybe the ancient Babylonians knew this, and conspired to etch it onto a conveniently lost or stolen piece of emerald that passed as a family heirloom among various Illuminati societies until it landed at long last in the hands of a slick 20th century marketer. If only I were joking…
Competitive “Success” Always Involves More Randomness and Natural Selection Processes Than They Want to Admit
But let’s clear something up: whatever you’ve set out to do, what you’re actually doing is stepping into a process of natural selection created by everyone else who has set their eyes on the same prize. If everyone else is setting those goals too, then all this believing and goal setting and self-affirming is really just the ante you have to pay in order to play that game well. It’s not at all a guarantee that you’ll win against all of the others who are doing the exact same thing.
The gurus will work over time trying to convince you to suppress this notion in favor of gluttonous amounts of trumped up faith and self-affirmation, casting your success with their formula to be something near a divine promise. But c’mon! If 11 direct competitors buy the book, “How to Guarantee A Top 10 Ranking In Google,” all the faith in the world won’t let at least one of them have it. In short, if the goal that you’ve set is lofty or highly competitive, there is a very real and very natural possibility that you will never, ever achieve what you have set out to do.
Why Isn’t That OK?
In a more authentic and gracious world, that would be perfectly fine. Life is about far more than “winning” and “being the best,” which are ultimately shallow, egotistical desires for the privileged to engage in order to fill the existential void that comes from having too much time and security.
But in this world? Forget it. You will be harangued with new age guilt for having “created your own reality.” You didn’t work hard enough. You didn’t believe enough. And there will be no compassion for you; you will be a byword among the people, your name struck forever from the Great Book of Success in which all American demagogues etch their names, cast forever into low income housing, with the prostitutes and sinners, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. You will join the poor and the sick in being blotted from memory–all failures must go unnamed and unsung. Who would want to sing about them?
Ignoring the Warning Signs
Most dangerously, pseudo-optimism keeps you permanently distracted from the state of the world, squeezing an opaque and rosy lens between you and the future, cooing you to sleep in a field of poppies with lullabies about disruptive innovation, Moore’s law, and accelerating rates of change. If it allows you to glimpse any nude and uncensored shots of the world’s real problems–a sixth extinction, intense population pressures, dying oceans, drying aquifers, poisons in the air, the water, the soil, the blood of umbilical cords–it will instantly pacify you with a grossly oversimplified story that celebrates the quick and painless victory of Technocratic Solutionism: don’t worry, you don’t have to do anything. Somewhere right now, nerds at MIT and geeks in Silicon Valley are fixing it, just like they’re fixing all of our problems.
Without the opening of our hearts and minds, without a radical revisioning of the foundational structures that compose our world, all our exciting innovations will be usurped by adolescent egotism and end up suffering from the same distortions of greed and endless growth.
What Do We Do?
What’s funny about this sort of optimism is that it is most useful when it’s false. When do you need a shield the most, when the sky is clear, or when the arrows are falling like rain? And to me, that exposes the underlying motive of pseudo-optimism for what it is: intellectual and moral cowardice. This is for people who are afraid of the dark.
But then, the world can be a very dark place. What if someone takes the blinders off and sees that it’s hopeless? What if the problems are too big, too deeply entrenched? What if the enemy is too powerful?
I say hopelessness is both real and beside the point. Like Théoden at Pelennor Fields, we charge into battle, not because we are certain of victory, but because we would rather give our lives trying than roll over and play dead in the face of all that’s currently against us. That’s a courage that transcends both hopelessness and pseudo-optimism.
But I also think there’s great reason to hope. The ranks of those who are resisting the destructive dominance of the current globalist paradigm and innovating better solutions are swelling to a near-critical mass.
We Need Real Courage and Rugged Optimism
I’m not trying to encourage people to stop setting goals or to stop believing in them. I am trying to encourage people to open their eyes, to let the true state of their world to wash over them, and to avoid setting goals of personal vanity until they have stared that world in the face, stared into the abyss.
Getting “in touch with your bliss” is only part of the process; it’s also worth asking what about the world makes you the angriest and the saddest. Would making some change in those parts of the world make you ecstatic? Would it bring tears to your eyes? Let that inform your goals.
When the lines are drawn, I intend to side with the broken ones, the forsaken ones, and all of earth’s forgotten children, while pseudo-optimists celebrate the engineering of their own doom like Belshazzar of Babylon in their penthouse suite cocktail parties. And soon, I expect, the writing on the wall will proclaim again what it proclaimed long ago: “you have been weighed on the scales, and found wanting.”
What the world needs most are not more pop divas and athletic elites and young sociopathic billionaires or more efficient ways to foment destruction and death. We need healers, sages, seers, elders, and warriors of a new kind: a fleet of dark angels, strong, weathered, not tempted by fame and fortune, and unafraid to plunge into the heart of darkness in this world.
Latest posts by John Wenger (see all)
- Pseudo-Optimism: A New Opiate for the Masses - February 13, 2017
- Why We Have Sociopaths For Heroes - August 22, 2016
- Future Scientists and Historians Will Laugh At Us. But What Will They Laugh About? - August 10, 2016