Monday, March 27, 2006

Optimist or Pessimist? - The Basic Framework

From Po:

I'm not going to fix our school systems.
Nor am I going to singlehandedly fix our families.
I'm not going to push the frontiers of science, either.
Nor am I going to ease real estate prices.

But I do care about the future, and I do wonder what my stance on the future should be. Should I be optimistic or pessimistic about the future? My children today are 5 and 1.5 - and should I feel good about the world they will live in, or should I be scared and protective?

Will they get good educations?
Will there be jobs for them after?
Will they ever be able to buy a house?
What will their families look like, and their friends' families?
Will the world be at war?
Will the borders be open to travel and immigrants, or will this become more difficult?
Will science bring important innovations, or will there just be a ton of hype and marginal scientific advancement?

"Optimist or Pessimist?" is a framework Ashley and I will be using over the coming month to discuss various issues.

Each of us decides whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. Philosophers suggest that the benefit of having very low expectations is that when a crumb of good news comes your way, you can enjoy it. You prepare for the worst, and when the worst doesn't happen, you're pleasantly surprised. You never come out the fool if you're a pessimist. Public pessimism is also kind of finger-pointing that applies social pressure to fix more, do more, make changes. There are times we need to get angry to be heard.

On the other hand, optimism is itself transformative. Optimism is encouragement and a pat on the back for what we've accomplished. Optimism elevates people who aspire. We're more likely to invest - and try to improve it - if we believe success is possible. For this reason, optimism might be appropriate, even when the statistics aren't encouraging.

Sometimes, it's worth being an optimist just because everyone else is a pessimist, and it's fun to be contrarian.

Were we generally more optimistic, in our past? I think so, but I wasn't alive before 1964 so I can't really say. If we've become more pessimistic, as a society, what have been the consequences - has our attitude made things better or worse?

On the issues Ashley and I will be tackling, there is evidence on both sides. There's reasons to be optimistic, and plenty of ammo to be pessimistic. I consider them close calls. On some issues, Ashley and I will be on opposite sides. On some, the same side.

If you've read my work the past few years, you have probably sensed my inherent optimism. Journalists aren't usually optimistic - they have to cover so much bad news that they become jaded about the state of our world. I get my optimism from the people I've interviewed. Traveling the country, hearing the struggles of ordinary people, I see such thoughtfulness and caring and aspiration that I cannot help but feel upbeat about the basic nature of people.

Ashley too is a lover of common people, but she is presented every day with problems she can't ignore. Because she tutors children in a central Los Angeles barrio, she sees wonderful children being steered into marginal futures. She is an obsessive researcher who uncovers frightening statistics in report after report. As a former Clinton administration speechwriter, every day she heard from constituents in desperate need of more help. She says I'm more spiritual than her, but I say her religious faith is much stronger than mine. In the posts to this blog over the last month, you might already sense her skillful and shrewd skepticism - such as whether there's enough New Dads to make a difference, and whether single mothers seeking donor sperm is a good alternative for anyone but the rich. I can't predict that she'll be more pessmistic than I, but I'm curious where she's going to land on each of these issues.

Our first "Optimist or Pessimist?" posts begin later today. We'll start with one dear to me, since my son is applying to kindergartens. Should you be optimistic or pessimistic about the education a child born today will receive?


Post a Comment

<< Home