I’m naturally a pessimist; I’ve had to work very hard to reduce that tendancy, and it still periodically rears it’s ugly head. So I’ve really had to think about what pessimism and optimism are. As the pessimists among you will know, pessimism doesn’t really feel like pessimism; it seems like we’re just being realistic. To an extent, I think that’s true: pessimism is realism mixed with discouragement.
And a lot of what is called optimism seems unrealistic: you can’t just believe ‘it will all turn out for the best’ because sometimes that is simply untrue. ‘You’ll get better soon’ is a platitude, because you can’t know that; one of the multitude of illnesses we catch will turn out to be fatal. And aging certainly won’t just go away because we put on some rose-tinted glasses.
Now you’re thinking that I sound really pessimistic! No, I just believe our optimism needs to be based on reality. Buddha said we need to know the truth of suffering; that view only feels pessimistic if we don’t also believe that it can get better.While we need to look realistically at the nature of suffering, we also need confidence that we can free ourselves from this. This is renunciation, and it’s a uplifted mind – an optimistic mind – because we know we’re moving in the direction of real freedom. If we lack that confidence – if we don’t believe in our own potential to be completely released from suffering – then we end up feeling pessimistic instead.
Pessimism is actually not realistic, however it feels, because we are holding onto the negative characteristics of our situation and not recognizing it’s changability. Yes, things do tend to get worse if we do nothing to fix them; but, they also have the potential to get better, if we apply a spiritual solution. So if we take a realistic look at our world (in all it’s horror and it’s glory) with wisdom, we will become an optimist, because renunciation is ultimately the supreme form of optimism.