Ever express a point of view or an observation that was met with the following statement, “You must be a pessimist.” The statement is responded with either a shrug or the counter statement, “I’m not a pessimist. I’m a realist.”
At some point in your lives, you’ve engaged in this kind of interaction. I find myself in dialogues exactly like the one described above multiple times a week, sometimes multiple times a day even. For the most part, I really don’t get bothered with it. It is what it is. I usually resign to the shrug and move on with my life. But there are times where I claim to be a realist as a way to deny my pessimistic outlook of the world and I end up with a week like this one. I have to ask myself, why am I defending my pessimism, especially if it happens to be the truth.
So, I attempt to put my thoughts on paper.
The simplest way to defend pessimism is by clearly differentiating between optimism, pessimism, and realism.
What is pessimism? Pessimism is the tendency to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen. Pessimism involves a lack of hope or confidence in the future. They are the folks who tend to look at the world as glass half-empty (an analogy I’ve grown tired of, but effective nonetheless). The pessimist seen the world for its faults and is resigned to the fact that all is lost. The pessimist will be the best friend to Friedrich Nietzsche. They see the depravity of man and nothing else. The pessimist looks at the world through dark lenses of defeatism and cynicism. Pessimism is looking at a newborn baby and the first thought that comes to mind is about how that baby will one day die. Pessimism is being at a wedding and telling the bride about all the difficulties of marriage.
Optimism, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Optimism is where you see the best aspect of the world around you. The optimist is constantly filled with hope and confidence about the successes of the future. They see the world as glass half-full. They see the world through rose-colored lenses and see the world filled with sunflowers and dancing in the rain. The optimist is probably best friends with SpongeBob Squarepants. They tend to see the full potential of every man, woman, and child. When they see a new born baby, they see another life filled with opportunities to seize, they see someone who could potentially change the world. They see the beauty of the miracle of life. They are the ones who will tell the bride about how her marriage is going to be the best thing of her life on her wedding day and make her cry tears of happiness. The optimist favorite colors are yellow, pink, or something else really bright (okay, maybe not but just felt the need to throw that in there).
Alright, so why were the above descriptions necessary? Because, as I’m sure you picked up on it, optimism and pessimism fall on two extremes of a spectrum. Optimism is the extreme on the right while pessimism is the extreme on the left. Just like anything that falls on a spectrum, what we must aim for in a balance. In politics, being so far right or left can be disastrous. But if you are able to find a balance somewhere in the middle that allows you to see the best of both sides and are able to objectively critique both sides, that’s the ideal situations. Relationships, both romantic and platonic, also falls on a spectrum. You have those relationships with people who don’t bother to put in any effort into the relationship to make it work and there are those who will never leave your side. The ideal situation there is having relationships that can balance between individual autonomy and time spent together. Another aspect of life that falls on a spectrum is work. You can either be a workaholic and sacrifice every other aspect of your life or you could be the person that’s lazier than a sack of potatoes and not lift a finger. Again, the ideal option is striking a balance between working and personal life. Ask any millennial organizations.
The perspectives of optimism and pessimism also fall on that spectrum. You can have the individual who is so optimistic that they don’t see the reality of living in a fallen world and you can have the individual who is so pessimistic that they do not see the wonder of living in a beautiful world of endless possibilities. This is where I come in: The realist.
The realist is the center of the “-ism” spectrum. To put it simply, the realist believes that there is wonder and beauty to behold in this world, yet knows that it will not last. To put in another way, the realist believes that the world is broken, but there is hope that it can be put together.
The realist will be viewed as a pessimist by the optimist and an optimist by the pessimist. The realist is objective. The realist is aware of their reality. They keep the optimist down to earth and hold the pessimist from sinking into the earth.
I would argue that majority of humanity fall into the category of realists. Which naturally means we will not always be perfectly positioned in the middle. There are realists who can lean a little to the optimistic side (the realistic optimists [RO]) and some who lean a little more on the pessimistic side (the realistic pessimist[RP]). However, even with that being the case, realists are never idealistic nor hopeless. Take myself, for instance. I fall under the category of RP. Anyone who knows me will attest to my cynical nature and my constant critiques of life and consistent questioning of anything good in life. For example, I once had a friend text me “heyyy” and I responded with “What do you want?” because my mind immediately went to her texting me because she wants something (which wasn’t the case). I tend to see the dark sides of the world we live in. I find the depravity of man and the darkness of the world enthralling. I adore Nietzsche and Dr. House (not that I’m assuming that they are realists). I find experiencing emotional pain more humane (which sounds a little masochistic). But the one thing, regardless of how dark I like to view the world as, I never lose hope in the good that exists. That’s what roots me to realism.
While I can’t speak too much on the RO viewpoint, one thing that I can be certain in admitting is that the RO is not fooled by the façade of smiles. They don’t wear the rose-colored glasses that the optimist constantly wears. They can differentiate between the beautiful colors what brings life to the world, but also are fully aware of the dark, gray, black, aspects of reality.
Ultimately, this is my conclusion. To claim somebody as either an optimist or a pessimist because of their opinion on something might be counter to yours is futile. In doing so, you discredit the nuances that make the individual who they are. Simply labelling someone as a pessimist because they mention, “relationships are a waste of time” is to deny them the opportunity to share why they say that. Similarly, claiming someone as an optimist because they proclaim that the world so much beauty in the world to behold is to deny their history of what made them believe them (even though the way the people on the optimistic side of the spectrum are annoying as all hell).
See, that’s the realistic pessimist in me.