some thoughts on pessimism
by a master pessimist himself
I apologize for not writing to you sooner. As you might have noticed, I’ve abandoned the practice of publishing every week and arranged a new bet with a friend. So now I have to publish at least once a month, or I lose the bet.
The past two months have been pretty rough. I haven’t been writing much or doing much of anything other than worrying and reading (Murakami, Kafka, Chesterton, Tolstoy). I'm slowly getting back to the routine.
I hope you'll enjoy the essay,
“Smart man says nothing is a miracle. I say everything is.” — Norm Macdonald
Joe Rogan trains the most when his life is hard. I, on the other hand, in times like that usually quit all the training, abandon all the hobbies, pour myself a warm cup of analysis paralysis, and jump head first into the pit of despair. I don’t know why I do that. I don’t know if there’s something in me that enjoys or even craves that behavior. I’m aware that this behavior only worsens things, yet I keep doing it.
I know on an intellectual level that I feel great after doing hard things, like training with heavy weights, taking a cold shower, or working on a hard problem, yet I find it the most difficult to do when times are hard. So instead of hardship, I seek comfort. I know what I should be doing, yet I do it not. The result — not doing anything hard to improve my situation — is the same as not knowing that I should do it at all. So do I really know it?
Naval: “Don’t partner with cynics and pessimists. Their beliefs are self-fulfilling.” I agree with this intellectually, yet I lean towards pessimism, even more so when times are hard.
The core problem of pessimism is its arrogance that it can predict the future. Pessimists worry about likely bad scenarios that might or might not happen based on the current circumstances. They wrongly assume the future is more predictable than it is. Yet, if I look back on the worst things that have happened to me (a practice highly recommended just before falling asleep, of course), including the most recent one that put me in this pit of despair, none of them was predicted by my past worries.
Usually, I was worrying about something that looked trivial in hindsight after the unpredicted bad thing happened. Seneca put it succinctly when he said that we suffer more in imagination than in reality. Most things we worry about never happen, and the bad things that happen are usually not the things we worry about.
What helped me realize that I worry about stupid things that never happen is writing these things down somewhere and then checking if they really happened. It’s easy to forget my past predictions, but writing them down leaves a trail and proof that I wasn’t thinking clearly. It made me more aware of how pessimistic I am.
Worrying about things can sometimes be valuable. For example, I was worrying about the big earthquake hitting Zagreb for a while. There were talks in the media that the big earthquake happens here every one hundred years and that the big earthquake happened a hundred years ago. So I was prepared for it by worrying about it. I imagined it would be catastrophic, that most buildings would collapse. So when it finally hit Zagreb, I was prepared and not as shocked as others, because I imagined it much worse.
When you are pessimistic, the Stoic practice of negative visualization — imagining how you or your loved ones can get sick at any time or even die, how you can lose your belongings, how your freedom could be taken away — is not hard. It’s second nature. But the Stoics did it to appreciate the good times more, to never take anything for granted, and to be more grateful. Pessimists are just stuck in negative visualizations and don’t go the extra step. They don’t know how to appreciate, find joy in the mundane, or be grateful for what they already have.
One of the key traits of pessimists is constantly complaining. And this is why I find Simon Sarris’ idea of trying not to complain about anything so compelling. I tried to do it today but failed the moment I woke up since I was woken up by a neighbor doing construction work. Fingers crossed I make it to two seconds after waking up tomorrow.
The final boss of this skill is driving without complaining. Hopefully, I can beat it one nice sunny day. That nice sunny day will probably be the day I’ll become an optimist.