Unlike high school, lots of people are super stoked about being at my college. Like high school, some don’t want to be here. Many of these are seniors who were ready to be done after the first week of the semester. I’m in a class with a lot of seniors. The atmosphere is different. Perhaps once these men and women were prime students, finishing assignments early and maintaining perfect attendance. Now they’re like restless old men in rocking chairs, tired of their old house and itching for a change of scenery.
So this class already isn’t the most stimulating or motivating environment. One day, my teacher’s role question was for us to voice one complaint about life at the moment. It was mostly asked in good fun, but I was left with a few less than encouraging impressions. 1) It’s incredibly easy, almost effortless, for everyone to voice bitterness about something; 2) Everything said seems vulnerably honest, so the bitterness is real; 3) Everyone seems to have painful, hard, bleak lives; 4) Why do we even come to class? what could we do about any of this anyway?
I felt intensively skeptical of life once the clock struck 1:15 and we headed out. I began getting in a mood I’ve known before. In such skepticism, I question why I bother doing what I do, doubt whether ordinarily exciting things are actually worthwhile, and generally feel the world pressing on my weak shoulders with the threat of crushing me. I didn’t realize the real threat to me––and to my checked-out senior classmates: pessimism. Chesterton warns of it with signature wit:
“this is a deep mistake in this alternative of the optimist and the pessimist. The assumption of it is that a man criticises this world as if he were house-hunting, as if he were being shown over a new suite of apartments. . . . But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before eh begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.” (Orthodoxy 66-67)
This false position of life/world critic is different from that of my classmates who don’t want to be at school––they chose to come to the school we all go to. They pay multiple thousands of dollars each semester to go here. They’re entitled to be critical of the educational experience they chose for themselves (though sometimes the pointedness and frequency of their criticism makes me wonder why they stick around). Not so for us simply as humans in the world––we did not choose this country but were chosen by it, born into it. We belong to our motherland, whether we like it or not.
Speaking of liking, have you ever noticed how people often criticize things or other people they like, professing to help the object of criticism? Chesterton thinks they’re a little less than honest:
“What is the matter with the pessimist? I think it can be stated by saying that he is the cosmic anti-patriot. And what is the matter with the anti-patriot? I think it can be stated, without undue bitterness, by saying that he is the candid friend. And what is the matter with the candid friend? There we strike the rock of real life and immutable human nature.
I venture to say that what is bad in the candid friend is simply that he is not candid. He is keeping something back––his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things. He has a secret desire to hurt, not merely to help. . . . he may be said, without rhetoric, to be a traitor; for he is using that ugly knowledge which was allowed him to strengthen the army, to discourage people from joining it. . . . The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises––he has not this primary and supernatural loyalty to things.” (Orthodoxy 68-69)
It’s like what we’ve turned honesty into. The phrase, “I’ll be honest,” has been sapped of delight and turned into an irksome warning: complaint ahead. Sure, our criticisms can be heartfelt––but that doesn’t mean we have to bleed a perfectly descriptive phrase of all potential joy. What if people started saying “I’ll be honest” before announcing engagement to marriage?
The problem with pessimists is that they don’t love the world they critique. They don’t really hate it either. Both love and hatred are forms of caring. The problem with pessimists is that they don’t really care. They’re not willing to do anything about, well, anything. They see the evils of life and refuse to be troubled enough to address any of them. I do this. I call it apathy or callousness, but it’s the same indifference––it’s an unwillingness to join the battle for my motherland. Laziness? Sloth? Selfishness? The root of pessimism is a sort of hollow feeling towards life––an emptiness of passion. Chesterton identifies what the solution might look like:
“We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment. . . . No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? . . . . [we want to be] ready to smash the whole universe for the sake of itself.” (Orthodoxy 72)
The antithesis of the pessimist’s contentment is compassion––the feeling that drives you to try to redeem what seems like a lost cause. In the New Testament, the gospel writer describes Jesus’ compassion on the crowds with the Greek word for bowels. I’ve heard it’s the same case in Hebrew. Compassion is when you feel something in your guts––the reaction antithetical to the dispassionate critique of the pessimist.
I’ve had it articulated lately that discovering the truth of the world pushes us frantically towards one of two responses: either a cold refusal to care or a warmth of heart, a suffering. Truth either hardens people or softens them––makes them either pessimists or compassionate––turns them into either critics or caregivers. Notice how compassion does not come from childish naivety––it is a response to bumping into the truth. Compassion, I think, is a decision to feel the probably painful weight of the truth you know. Knowing the truth of the world’s twistedness––or, for that matter, a friend’s brokenness––and still caring, to the point that you want to do something to help, to heal––that is compassion.
And this is our deeper desire. Instead of complaining we want to conquer. Instead of liking mildly we want to love fiercely––to be boiled into action instead of aired into complacency. The answer to the aimlessness of pessimism is to be upset with the world, to resolve not get on with life.