Chin up, old boy!
August 8, 2005 7:20 PM   Subscribe

How does an eternal pessimist find a ray of sunshine in a gloomy world?

I have always looked on the dark side of things. And with the world the shape it's in, is it any wonder? Global warming, peak oil, the war on terrorism...and that's just for starters. It seems like everywhere you turn, there's the prospect of an extinction-level event. But I'm a daddy now, and my baby boy is a solitary ray of sunshine. However, as he grows older, how do I convey a sense of hope and wonder to him, when those very feelings escape me? I truly fear for his--and our--future. What have you done to keep going? For the record, I am an atheist, so spiritual solutions don't work for me.
posted by nightengine to Religion & Philosophy (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Learn how to draw. There is a quote in Vonnegut's "Palm Sunday" where he is talking about making art, and he paraphrases a teacher of his who once said something like "I can control very little in the world, but I can control this stone, this canvas, this piece of paper". This is a metaparaphrase, but it's true.
posted by interrobang at 7:25 PM on August 8, 2005

Hi there. I'm new here, so I thought I'd get my feet wet by responding to your post.

I've asked myself the same kinds of questions recently. It's likely that you and I have different points of view about a lot of things (like what it is that makes the world seem so dark). I've noticed that people seem colder as time goes on (I'm 40). I have a husband and kids who, like your son, are the only real rays of sun for me.

Being an atheist, you may not relate to my advice, but there's a chance you can interpret it in some other way and find some use for it after all. When I have this feeling-- which, I admit, is more and more these days-- I try to connect with my Creator. I guess for you that could mean taking some time out and going to the woods and watching a sunset or sunrise with your boy. Or find a friend you have something in common with, and just talk. For me such people are becoming harder to find outside my family, but for you they might still exist.

"Good luck" sounds so phony, I guess. But I do wish you good luck. And me, too.
posted by denvermom at 7:29 PM on August 8, 2005

Perhaps you can learn some things about positivity and optimism from your son? Observe how he watches and reacts to the world around him, and try to do the same for yourself.

I'm more of a pessimist worrier myself but there are some times where I just had to stop worrying because otherwise I would just go nuts.
posted by divabat at 7:36 PM on August 8, 2005

There's the cynic's point of view, too: Members of every generation think that the world is about to end. This has been going on for years, centuries, eons. And while we wait for it to end, we get married, have kids, raise them, grow old.

I'm theistic myself, but I also view my salvation as far from assured. That doesn't get me down, much, though: I look at it this way- even if I'm gonna burn in hell or whatever, I've been given a lot of good fortune in this life, and that's more than anyone can ask for.

One other thing to try: Accept the fact that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. And resolve to do everything you can to reverse or at least delay it, from random acts of kindness on a small level every day, to following your conscience in the big issues of life. Be a force for good, reflecting the light that comes to you out to those around you. Then, the gloom won't seem so gloomy.
posted by Doohickie at 7:37 PM on August 8, 2005

I'm a fellow atheist, and I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum, though I certainly have my down times. That you find joy in your son will no doubt be conveyed, but I think I would share your worries.

If it were me, I'd try to find a way to re-connect with hope.

First, it helps to avoid those things which bring you despair.

How much are you really getting out of keeping up with the news? I have a spouse who is less affected by it, so after years of being very politically active, I gave it up, and let him keep "informed". I still hear about the really important stuff, but I do not immerse myself in depressing crap on a daily basis. I never watch television news, rarely read a mainstream paper, and sure as hell stay away from the political blogs.

I've also left behind people who brought me down. Not easy, but it left more room in my life for those who are joyful.

Now, here are some of the things that bring me joy. The list is incomplete, sometimes sappy, and probably little of it will apply to you. But if you can find even one thing to hook into, with luck and effort it can lead you to others.
  • Charities. Having done the Blogathon made me very familiar with various charities and the work they do. That people this courageous exist fills me with hope. Look up Modest Needs, Doctors Without Borders--heck, just do a search on "charitable organization".
  • Nature. I absolutely have to get out to the woods, or a good preserve, or the beach, etc., once in a while.
  • Related: critters. We've been watching The Life of Mammals, and learning about the amazing diversity of life takes my head completely out of anything depressing.
  • Non-political humor. Like, say, Lilo and Stitch. Seriously.
  • Art. Most cities have some sort of monthly gallery walk. Looking at art makes me think hard in abstract ways about beauty, creativity, and craftsmanship.
The best way to teach is by example, so if you can--begin with yourself.
posted by frykitty at 7:47 PM on August 8, 2005

Thinking about these things can be bad. To the extent you can help the world, help. To the extent you cannot, don't think about it. I'm serious, find hobbies, find things you enjoy that involve utter concentration on your part, like sports or building or... whatever. Just get out there and have fun, let go a little.
posted by lorrer at 7:48 PM on August 8, 2005

A similar question from the past — it even uses the phrase "quite frankly, I'm freaked out".
posted by smackfu at 7:51 PM on August 8, 2005

Sometimes I find it helpful to reverse my mode of thinking. In your case - what if you met someone who only looked at the bright side of life? Who only saw the most positive, affirming stories in the news everyday and thought the outlook on all fronts was great.

You'd think their worldview was unrealistic and extreme, right? Not reflective of the balance of good and bad that can be found in most situations? You would probably say they have a skewed perspective. Exactly.

Maybe the question to ask yourself, is what purpose does it serve to always see things in the worst light. Do you really use that outlook to actively prepare yourself and family for disaster with plans, contingencies, etc? You're getting something out of focusing on the negative. When you figure out what, maybe you can make a different choice.
posted by garbo at 7:55 PM on August 8, 2005

Stephen Covey, for one, suggests that you not allow your circle of concern to grow larger than your circle of influence. Everything you mentioned in your post are things that you have no influence over.

If you confine your search for inspiration to a more local level, I suspect you'll find things look significantly less bleak - I know I do. Occasionally I even find a place to dip my oar in and paddle in the right direction.

And that's pretty much what raising a kid is about.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:03 PM on August 8, 2005

I know I may get some serious flak for this, but I'm hoping for the good will of Mefites toward a newbie who hasn't said anything offensive yet.

My answer--as one atheist to another--is: Read Ayn Rand (Anthem if you're pressed for time, Atlas Shrugged if you've got some to invest). My single favorite quote is from Atlas and relates to this very topic. E-mail me if you'd like it. And best of luck to you.
posted by CiaoMela at 8:20 PM on August 8, 2005

Why do you need to give your child a sense of hope and wonder? If you are correct, then these feelings are unwarranted. If you are incorrect, then your child may end up being smarter and better-adjusted than you anyway. If you don't have something, how can you give it to somebody? Do you just want to be hopeful because you think other people are, and that's how you want your child to be? Take my tone as gently curious.
posted by Hildago at 8:32 PM on August 8, 2005

One of the things that keeps me going is the thought that one of the reasons the world hasn't ended yet is because there have been a lot of dedicated people working on making it a better place, and they are having an effect (for instance, the ozone is getting better since we've started paying attention to it). This means that there is hope, and that actions can make a difference.

When something depresses you, try to think about what actions you can take. Write to a politician, show up at a city council meeting, volunteer at a charity. Buy fair-trade and union-made whenever you can. Seek out stories of successful "world changing."

I also second pretty much everything frykitty said.
posted by carmen at 8:47 PM on August 8, 2005

Whenever I'm depressed, I stare at this picture for awhile.
posted by Soliloquy at 9:00 PM on August 8, 2005

read the book "learned optimism" by seiligman, or "feeling good." Both are cognitive behavioral therapy based, and both are highly recommended.
posted by mecran01 at 9:06 PM on August 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

Yep - as a result of mentions in previous posts, yesterday I bought Learned Optimism and so far it's excellent: I think it could be just what you're looking for (it's Seligman btw).
posted by forallmankind at 9:23 PM on August 8, 2005

Start expressing gratitude and thankfulness for the things you have in life. It is real easy to do, and you can start small -- I am grateful for my shoes, my child, the warm day, the dinner I just ate, the toilet paper I have, etc. Make a list and keep adding to it and read it over a few times a day.

It may sound silly, but I promise that this is a really powerful exercise!

The world is an amazing place when we stop for a moment and just appreciate all of the abundance and amazingness that we have around us. Quite often we get lost in the stories and drama and forget about what is really there in front of us.
posted by dhammala at 10:25 PM on August 8, 2005

My piece of advice would be NOT to read any Ayn Rand, under any circumstances (and I'm not trying to give you flack Ciao, but I really do believe this). As an alternative I would consider reading The Little Prince, a simple book that never fails to realign my perspective on the world, and how to find beauty and love within it.

Also, I agree strongly with ikkyu2's advice. Try (I know it ain't easy) to limit your concerns to things you can control. It's easy to get down on world events, but my solution to that has been to act locally, and it seems to work. By making that little extra effort to help someone in need, whether it be in the form of volunteering with the homeless, mentoring a kid who lacks direction, or just being a little more kind than usual, you might find that your own actions can genuinely improve the lives of others. And by doing so, you not only forge stronger connections with other people as well as your community potentially, you may also become more optimistic and empowered by affecting a change toward the better. And once you believe that you, yourself, can make a difference in people's lives, extrapolating to the rest of mankind may seem less unrealistic.

Also, as a fellow athiest and humanist, with no particular belief in an afterlife, it behooves me to try to make the most out of this life, even moreso when I accept that some global catastrophe or push of a button could wipe us all out. This is how I try to turn my fear of extinction into something positive -- it's just more of a drive to try to be a better person and appreciate what I have.
posted by drpynchon at 10:32 PM on August 8, 2005

Helping people is a great way to regain optimism. After all, the major troubles you mention may be with us till we die, so how those among us live is important, and often within reach. Have you considered doing some volunteer work?

on preview, what drpynchon said (including the secular impetus)
posted by dreamsign at 10:46 PM on August 8, 2005

I stopped reading the paper and started getting my national news from the Daily Show. Jon Stewart is equally cynical but he somehow finds humor in the horrors and absurdities of this world.

Also, I don't have any kids, but watching my dog find joy in little things does sometimes cheer me up when I am down.

And not to be reading too much into your post, but I've spent most of my life feeling like you've described, even verging on despair occassionally. I finally got to the point where I couldn't take it anymore and went on antidepressents. Contrary to my fears, I still am cynical and horrified by the world-- zoloft hasn't turned me into a little ray of sunshine. I still feel sad, etc. But my baseline has shifted, and I generally no longer have days where I can't do anything except sit and stare and feel sad. I can actually *do* the stuff everyone has described, like volunteering etc.

You might want to consider that you might have depression compounding your naturally cynical worldview. Feel free to email me off-list.
posted by miss tea at 4:35 AM on August 9, 2005

and now for the tough love answer:

you're alive, you have a baby, you have the luxury of a PC and the spare time to read and write stuff on a website for other people with spare time. you have a great life.

grow up, you have a baby now. it's not about you anymore.

apologies in advance for the tough love.
posted by poppo at 4:57 AM on August 9, 2005

As an atheist I would say that the thing that keeps me going is to create a positive impression on as many people as possible. Since we are none of us guaranteed any remembrance after our death it will help to touch as many people's lives as possible. Whether it is just helping someone by answering a question, baking some food for colleagues or anything else I find that the more I help others and set a good example the better chance that I will be remembered in a good light.

As a father as well I think spending time with your child, teaching them right from wrong and spending time doing just really simple stuff (go to the park, play on the swings, collect leaves and things for collages and art) is time very well spent. The times when you read him stories in bed or hug him when he has a skinned knee - all of these things will add up to create an example that will help your child grow up to be a good person, and that should be something that makes you happy.

I find happiness in the smiles my son gives me, in answering his questions and teaching him to be the best person he can be. As my own little immortality project I find that having a family and friends works just fine. Otherwise, don't get involved in problems outside your area but do act on things you have power over. Local government is always an option and will allow you to have some measure of influence over the world outside your window.
posted by longbaugh at 6:00 AM on August 9, 2005

I can't remember the exact line, but there's a Dan Clowes comic where he's trying to talk one of his own creations out of suicide (it's pretty weird) and he says something like, "There's music, and art, and literature, and 22-year-old-women who'd rather read than watch TV and, as long as you have a taste for black humor, the world will never leave you and a small group of like-minded friends short of material."

I'm probably mangling it, but it's something like that. And it's as good a defense of live as any other.
posted by COBRA! at 7:02 AM on August 9, 2005

I swear this works for me ,when I get 'dark' I watch, Repo Man. And like magic I feel better.
posted by hortense at 7:13 AM on August 9, 2005

Soliloquy's not far off from my favorite pick-me-upper. These days I go to Flickr and look at the pictures tagged with kittens, puppies, cats, dogs, kitten, puppy, cat, and dog. Works absolutely every time. It's temporary and has no philosophy to it (except maybe "big heads fuzzy bodies liquid eyes good").

You could also just go look at Caterina's pictures of her cute pooch Dos Pesos. It is my firm belief that these pictures prove that he was the cutest puppy ever. More of him here. Dos Pesos is kind of the locum for a dog I don't have, I guess.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:21 AM on August 9, 2005

i have the same problem, well, without the kid part, but yeah. and i find the only way to change it in any visceral experienced sort of way is to follow hayden's approach ("you and i rely on little things to get by..."). on the microcosmic level, i love my life; i love waking up, going through the day, being close to the people i love, etc. pretty unrelated but i can't help but think too of the thoreau quote "to affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts." be kind to those around you. notice the small things that affirm life is good. look around and find what's beautiful. that's all cheesy, but it's all i can say that's worked at all for me. whenever i expand out, to a more generalized nationalized/globalized level, i just get depressed. i think it has to do with feeling...helpless maybe. the idea i can't control the awful state of things nationally or globally in any immediately felt sense, but i can change the day i'm living within, right here.
posted by ifjuly at 8:15 AM on August 9, 2005

Wrap yourself up in activites, all the time. You may not be a ray of sunshine, but at least you won't have the mental bandwidth left to waste time on negativity. Since most things do skew towards suckage, there's not much point trying to pretend they don't.
posted by jewzilla at 9:18 AM on August 9, 2005

Fellow atheist. The book Feeling Good uses cognitive therapy to get you to argue with depressing thoughts which are often less rational than you assume.

Read about the happy atheists: Sagan, Feynmann (I assume), Einstein (for all intents and purposes), etc. Some, especially the scientists, seem to have an immense sense of passion and wonder.

Art, fiction, exercise, beautiful days, women, children, pets, hobbies, stargazing, etc.

Seek flow.
posted by callmejay at 9:48 AM on August 9, 2005

Another good book is Hapiness is a Choice . I've given you the link from the Option Institute Website. I started with reading the book a lot, eventually did a weekend workshop with the Option folks, and have really changed my level of optimism and how I work with it. These folks have a LOT of good tools for being happier and more optimistic. Focus helps a lot. Try browsing the main website Option Institute
posted by judybxxx at 11:26 AM on August 9, 2005

Focus on the life around you. Do you see beautiful and happy things in your day to day life? Your son, your family, the small kindnesses of friends? This is the world you live in and this is the world you can contribute to in a positive or a negative way.

The future of the world as a whole is beyond your control and your understanding. Do what you can to make your interactions with people in your day to day life a source of pleasure.

And, for what it's worth, I do belive the world as a whole is becoming a better place. Without discounting the misery, poverty, and atrocities that go on in the world, I believe that life as a whole is better now for a larger amount of people than it was in the past. We hear about a lot more global misery than we might have if we lived in 1600 or 1066, but our day to day lives are better. The horrors and atrocities have always gone on, but it wasn't until recently that you could look around at your family and friends and most of them haven't lost a child, or suffered a crippling disease, or gone without food. These things do go on in the world, but I think this is one of the first times in history that they don't go on for everyone. So I believe that slowly but surely, one painful step at a time, the world is growing and changing for the better.
posted by MsMolly at 11:28 AM on August 9, 2005

I've had a fairly big hand in raising my young sisters. I think the way to nurture a child's curiosity and wonder is to answer all their questions as honestly as possible, and then once they are old enough, perhaps start showing them where you find your answers: teach them to reference a dictionary and encyclopaedia and the internet.

As for being optimistic and positive, I find that doing something consuming helps a lot. If you're feeling gloomy, *force* yourself to play your guitar, or have a game of tennis, or go for a brisk walk, or draw a picture. Alternatively, you can just do something that you know puts you in a good mood: listen to a happy record, read an uplifting book, play with your child, watch a comedy.

It sounds like many of the things that you mentioned that depress you are world issues. It's very easy to feel powerless in the face of them, simply because you can't solve them on your own. Might I suggest that you look into joining groups that are tackling these problems. Join Greenpeace, or an anti-war coalition, or a recycling scheme. Protest, change your lifestyle to reduce wastage of resources, join discussion groups... I find getting involved in this sort of stuff (or anything else you find interesting) makes you feel like you're doing something, and it's also fun in itself.
posted by pollystark at 3:43 AM on August 11, 2005

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