Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (eighth edition, 1981) defines pessimism as "an inclination to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome." There's no picture of me, but there could have been; by nature, I am somewhat pessimistic. Yes, I realize this is like saying "By nature, tidal waves tend to be a trifle damp," but let it be said once again: by nature, I am somewhat pessimistic.

How I came by this is not entirely clear. I do know that I spent a great deal of my formative years reading, and one of my favorite reads then and now is H. Allen Smith, journalist, humorist and, yes, pessimist. To give you an idea:

I am continually amused by people who have "premonitions" about airplanes crashing with themselves or their loved ones aboard. We read in the newspapers that a man who was killed in a crash told his friends or his family before take-off that he had a strong premonition of tragedy. Or, one of his friends or a member of his family had the premonition. Even the newspapers hint that there is something truly supernatural about these affairs. But I know better. I'm quite sure in my own mind that there is no extrasensory perception involved. Every goddamn time I climb into a plane I murmur a sad and silent farewell to the world. And I'm sure there are many others like me. I feel quite positive that this is it. That this is the time I get it. And I have the same sensations each time I take friends or relatives to the airport and put them on a plane. I give each of them a final lingering look, knowing deep inside of me that it is the last time I'll see them alive.

Note that this is not actually fear of flying; this is, um, fear of crashing. Think this is hogwash, and obsolete hogwash at that? On the same subject, James Lileks:

I regard airplanes as morgues with gift shops. As much as my brain knows the facts on flying — i.e., it's safer than doing some welding while standing up to your knees in gasoline — my heart knows that as soon as I get on a plane, it will erupt in flames for no good reason and I will be paste on the landscape.

I'd say that this qualifies as expecting "the worst possible outcome." I don't get quite that skittish, or at least I didn't before 11 September 2001; nowadays I wince every time I drive past the exit for Airport Road.

The thing to remember is that pessimism is a tool: you can sit around and fondle it all day, or you can put it to work. I get some serious mileage out of mine. Project due in two weeks? I'll tell you it can't be done for three and make both of us believe it, and then finish on day nine. Impossible to recreate this file? Here's the backup copy. Woman of my dreams coming down the hallway? I'll make sure I'm awake, just in case.

Admittedly, this is the sort of thing that wreaks havoc with my emotional health — or would, if I had any. The highly-disciplined professionals at Shrinks R Us see nothing praiseworthy in my approach: expecting to be spurned is hardly likely to improve my romantic prospects, and surely there isn't a dark cloud in front of every silver lining. But to hell with the experts. If I'm going to be disappointed — and who isn't, at some point? — the very least I can do is to be prepared for it. As H. Allen Smith once explained: "A pessimist is one who feels bad when he feels good for fear he'll feel worse when he feels better." If that makes perfect sense to you too, we're on the same ride, and fasten your damn seatbelt already.

The Vent

#323
1 January 2003

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