OPTIMIST OR PESSIMIST? NEITHER/BOTH Either or question close off richness of response and thought by imposing either/or imitations. Of course, they do make better sound bytes , are easier to frame and put people who define themselves as one or the other at odds. Not a path to understanding complexity or diversity. Instead of an either/or question I will answer two related questions. What fuels my optimism? What leads me to the pit of pessimism?
The capacity of human nature to care fuels my optimism. Jerome Kagan and Sharon Lamb edited The Emergence of Morality in Young Children, a book that forced me to think about the good and evil behaviors of the human race. What interested me most was the consensus among the contributors that the human race is biologically programmed to respect two moral imperatives–caring and justice . Recognition of these as the universal principles of morality, creates my optimism.
The state of the world creates my pessimism. Not an issue addressed by the book. I have concluded that the problem lies in the another innate drive–the dividing of the world into insider–members of our tribe and outsiders–all others. If you think about the march of history, behaviors that would be forbidden within our family or tribe, become more and more permissible the more the other is viewed as not like us and in extreme cases as not human. That was the human trait allowing good people to own slaves and warriors to kill even women and children of the perceived enemy. It is also the edict applied by those religious groups that divide people into the saved and the damned, the believer and the non-believer, the faithful and the blasphemer or heretic.
As the globe narrows and we gradually accept the relatedness of all, and come to see our commonality war should end. Or so my optimistic self thinks.
Sadly, another well researched idea about human behavior make me pessimistic. Children under the age of six form a core set of beliefs about the world. The infant explores what is and is a learning machine. S/he will come at about the age of six or seven to believe solidify that learning into a more global belief: “What is Ought to Be.z’ Contradictory ideas will be rejected. A child’s “What is” is formed by three things:
- Biology meaning both genetic predispositions including temperament, and those biological events such as illness, trauma, brain injuries that change a person
- The voices of authority heeded by the child; the more those surrounding a child teach and preach the same thing, the more powerful the teaching–why fundamental religious groups want to control education and often separate their young from broader societal influences if at various with their doctrines.
- The child’s personal experiences. Something as simple as being the first-born child leads to different beliefs about what is and about right and wrong, particularly as taught by voices of authority.
Believing “What is ought to be” sometimes undergoes revision during adolescence. This is when many become capable of thinking broadly and comparing contradictions among previous beliefs. Adolescents seeking self-hood often question authority, but not always. Some studies show as many as 70 to 50% of the human race doesn’t challenge authority. That to me explains our long history of religious wars and pulls me into the pit of pessimism.
So I am an optimistic pessimist, hopeful in the long run but fearful that my children and I will not know a caring and just world. I am also a realist and extend my faith and caring to all, but with a slightly distrustful or pessimistic eye. As Malcolm X noted: “I believe in the brotherhood of all men, but I don’t believe in wasting brotherhood on anyone who doesn’t want to practice it with me. Brotherhood is a two way street. “