Sunday’s Parade Magazine had David Gergen’s list of five reasons he’s able to stay optimistic about the United States, even though in the short term he’s pessimistic. I suspect he might have been taking a page from my playbook. You see, both of us are pessimistic optimists—and I’ve been one for nearly 50 years. So early this year I was delighted to read Steven Pinker’s 700 page tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, a well-documented study providing support for long-term optimism about humanity. A short term perspective on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might cause a person to reject Pinker, but that perspective won’t stand the scrutiny of his research. Pinker, instead, looks at the big picture since 1250 BC., and his thesis supports the Gergen/Erwin Thesis.
Gergen’s brief column is worth rehearsing for most anytime. Even though he wrote for “dear voters,” it’s just as applicable after the presidential election. There’s a slight caveat: A growing chorus of experts believe that as long as our political leaders can handle the deficit and spark growth, our future will be much brighter. I suspect they’re smart enough to handle the deficit, especially since it’s really not as big a deal as many would like us to believe. It’s just all about values, choices and compromise. Yeah, I know, the Dunderheads don’t want to compromise today. But in our democracy, long term the Dunderheads just fade away.
Here’s a quick summary of Gergen’s five reasons to stay positive:
1. Immense technology breakthroughs are unlocking vast resources of natural gas. Schools like MIT are devoting more research to make the US greener and more energy dependent.
2. American advances in biology, information technology and manufacturing lead the world in addressing human needs.
3. America continues to reign supreme in higher education. A Times Higher Education study found that 14 of the 20 world’s top universities are American. (The Shanghai Rankings, well known by scholars for its emphasis on research, finds that 8 of the top 10 and 17 of the top 20 universities are American.)
4. Republicans and Democrats alike are starting to agree that we need to open our doors to talented foreigners. That, of course, is all about the inevitability of reforming immigration policy.
5. Gergen’s near unique perspective that two streams of people pouring into the workforce could change the country: veterans from 11 years of war dazzling employers with their expertise, and college graduates who are passing up Wall Street to do socially responsible work. An intriguing statistic: At some top universities, nearly one in five seniors has applied to Teach for America.
Although few writers or intellectuals have overtly espoused pessimistic optimism as a full-fledged reality structure, applicable to all of life, it regularly appears as a subtext to their work and conversation. Admittedly, at bottom it’s a faith-derived intellectual attitude. One of the more well-known and obvious members of the group of pessimistic optimists is Jon Meacham, commentator, former editor of Time, now executive editor of Random House and Pulitzer Prize winner. Though I’ve never heard him refer to it, I suspect some of his perspective is deeply rooted in his classic Episcopalianism. His best exposition of this perspective is in a Time magazine editorial, Keeping the dream alive.
Although pessimistic optimism shares a strong orientation to testing reality, much like secular humanism, it differs in that it is an ultimately optimistic orientation to reality. Though I approach pessimistic optimism from perspectives of both intellectual history and theology, systematic studies in psychological optimism have also found it to profoundly affect human well-being and success. As well, I’ve found in my business of management consulting that the attitudes of those who succeed are strongly oriented to the perspective—even though they’ve rarely thought it through. Conversely, when I dig into those who want to change, at bottom, I find that I’m dealing with the need for new competencies and a fundamental perspective needing surgery to reorient it to pessimistic optimism. Understand clearly: all of life, whether we know it or not, has some faith perspective that can never be fully tested. But pessimistic optimism is easily the most pragmatic, useful and liberating reality structure.
Flickr photo: by hynkel