If you want to sound intelligent, be a pessimist. If you want to make the world a better place, be an optimist. I saw something on Twitter that grabbed my attention and connected with a feeling I’ve had for a long time about what it means to be optimistic about the future. Pessimism and doomerism seem intelligent. Pessimism is the feeling you are clear-eyed about the world and have taken all the necessary facts and data and come to the conclusion that the current trajectory is unsustainable or will never work or will end in failure.
That post was about business and technology but it applies to everything in life. Would a medieval peasant living as a serf under a brutal feudal lord just like his father, and his father before him have imagined that one day Europe would be filled with democracies and slavery and serfdom would be illegal? Would he have dreamed that his descendants could vote for their leaders and could own their own land and homes? Could he have imagined cars and planes and computers and foods from around the world cheaply available at a local grocery store? He probably didn’t think that far ahead and it almost certainly never would have occurred to him that future was possible.
The future is not as predictable as all the evidence available to us today would seem. Who could have imagined in 2019 that a world altering global pandemic would sweep through? Unpredictable and once unthinkable things happen. That’s a negative example but there is nothing that says unpredictable positive things can’t happen either.
I see a lot of doomerism about the world. Now, I’m mostly seeing this on social media and I have a personal rule to be suspicious about just how reflective of reality social media is about anything, but it’s definitely there and I suspect that doomerism is very real and common. Lots go as far as saying the American Experiment is failing and will now inevitably fail–the recent abortion ruling certainly added fuel to that fire. I’m not going to say that’s impossible, but a way to make certain that happens is to assume it is inevitable and there is nothing that can be done to stop it. I don’t think it’s surprising to see doomerism like that take hold. Giving up is easy and pessimism feels intelligent.
Image: domino meme with something positive resulting (or the funny one about Obama making fun of Trump at the correspondents dinner)
But it’s wrong. The future is not written, there are always actions you can take to change it even if you don’t see them yet, unpredictable things happen all the time, and whatever information you have about the present is never the full picture. You can’t conceive of what the future will bring any more than that medieval peasant. There’s also more than just the unpredictable. Sometimes the trajectories are there in front of us the whole time but it’s only decades or centuries later that they become obvious. Who in 1839 in the midst of the German revolutionary period could have predicted WW2 and the holocaust of 1939? And then who could have predicted the resulting rise of America the superpower and the global spread of democracy over the next 60 years. The foundations for all these events could be seen in 1839 but no one at the time could have predicted the series of events over the next century. No one should think they are intelligent enough to do that today.
Those are all big, complex historical events and trajectories that would make anyone feel small and as though their own actions are negligible and won’t change anything. But individual people do make a difference in this world. You are capable of making the world a better place if you choose. Actions you take today will echo and continue to affect the world in some way for eternity. We have the power to change the future so we better exercise it.
If the future is not written then we each have a part to play in what happens next. We make the future through our actions today. This is why giving up is doing evil to yourself. Giving up is an affront to your humanity and your consciousness. We are a species with the unique ability to determine our own futures and make choices about our course of action. No other life on earth can do that. So to give up and let the world pass by while you refuse to work towards a future you want is an insult to your humanity and a failure to live life–the one thing you can not squander.
The world is what we make it and that includes not just your decisions but your opponents too. Yes, we are all fellow human beings and we should not fight, but ultimately we are in competition with many. Think of the people of Ukraine today fighting for a better future. So many experts said (and still say!) they should lie down and allow Russia to take over in exchange for a minimum of suffering because there was no way Ukraine could resist. They were wrong.
Ukraine made a decision to push back against what seemed inevitable, and they are succeeding beyond what almost anyone could have imagined. What seems inevitable beyond all doubt often isn’t. No one can predict the future with certainty and even the best experts get things about the present wrong–sometimes very wrong as was the case with western intellectuals and how powerful they thought Russian was, and what they thought Ukrainians would be capable of doing.
So if we often get the present wrong, we can’t predict future events, and we can’t even conceive what the future will even look like, then why all the doomerism? The arena we are fighting in for a better future is not as limiting and overwhelming as you think. But always remember that you still have to actually work for it. Taking even small actions creates opportunities and you need to be ready to take advantage of opportunities. If you give up you’ll watch those opportunities pass by and your version of the future will fail and someone else’s will win.
“The fundamental cause of the trouble in the modern world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
— Bertrand Russell
If you are so filled with doubt and doomerism that you give up, then you are allowing others who are not so full of doubt and doomerism to make the world they want. Do you want, on your deathbed, to look back on your life and see that not only did the world you wanted slip away but that you never even tried to create it?