The human brain contains roughly a 100-billion neurons. Or fewer, but still billions of neurons firing and processing and doing what neurons do best. How few I get around to using! One of my not-so-secret passions is neuroscience. although I suspect I don’t understand more than a fraction of what I read in Scientific American or elsewhere. As is the case with Wittgenstien.
Never mind, today I am making a Yotam Ottolenghi template for pearl barley tabouleh to go with a roasted carrot and fennel salad and baked endives in a lemon sauce. Middle Eastern is the way forward. The housemate looks a little dubious and cautions against more than minute pinch of cumin.
A friend at supper last night ( eating cashewy pilaff and a zingy rocket & cherry tomato & ripe avocado salad) said that if you wake up in the morning and can decide to be cheerful and maintain a positive attitude, you are not depressed and therefore do not know the choicelessness of clinical depression. True enough. But even if someone is not battling severe depression, some of us have less sanguine temperaments. My own temperament is the bounce-back kind, so bouts of pessimism only last a few days. Lucky me. Others have a mostly upbeat and hopeful nature, natural optimists. Some of this has to do with circumstances — if you had a stable good-enough childhood, are in good health, have a secure income and a stable happy family life, optimism may be just the icing on top. There are, however, those who remain optimistic even when faced with health crises, bereavements, financial insecurity or who find themselves in the midst of war.
I keep stopping as I write this because my chutzpah in writing in such sweeping terms may be a cafard, leading nowhere. In sobriety, meditation has helped me keep the mind calm under provocation. My behaviour has become more goal-directed, there is greater tolerance for frustration or disappointment because of insight-related therapy. Even anger is less unmanageable.
My temperament though is that of a survivor, someone who has come through several life-threatening situations (with a little help from my friends), someone who knows she is lucky to be where she is today. It could all have been so very different and so much bleaker. By the same token, I know from surviving certain experiences that bad things happen to good people. Politically, I am a pessimist. Religious traditions are ambiguous; science is fallible. But, open the door in the darkest and stormiest of nights and and there is that wild card, hope, right there on the threshhold. If someone like myself could come through the darkest of nights, others can do it too. Experience, strength and hope lurking deep in the Pandora’s box of recovery.
The pessimism or optimism we inherit as our basic disposition is not fixed. It may always be a default position, but it can be changed or amended to some extent. At the same time, the optimism/pessimism fulcrum is only a small part of becoming an authentic person — the axes of creativity, integrity and freedom have many permutations. Bright-eyed smiley optimists may be among the most ‘unreal’ of our acquaintances, shielding themselves from unpleasant realities, blunted and impervious to what is happening with others. Pessimists may suffer horribly because of guilt, feeling they should be more grateful, more optimistic, more positive. People-pleasers may have no idea if they are optimists or pessimists at core, because their moods are dictated by the compliance or non-compliance of those they seek to please or control and who inevitably disappoint them.
We also know why optimists do better than pessimists. The answer lies in the differences between the coping strategies they use. Optimists are not simply being Pollyannas; they’re problem solvers who try to improve the situation. And if it can’t be altered, they’re also more likely than pessimists to accept that reality and move on. Physically, they’re more likely to engage in behaviors that help protect against disease and promote recovery from illness. They’re less likely to smoke, drink, and have poor diets, and more likely to exercise, sleep well, and adhere to rehab programs. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to deny, avoid, and distort the problems they confront, and dwell on their negative feelings. It’s easy to see now why pessimists don’t do so well compared to optimists.
Too tough on pessimists? There’s also the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton warning on the dangers of false hope and humorist David Rakoff’s book of essays Half-Empty which is
“essentially about pessimism and melancholy: all the other less than pleasant to feel emotions that because they are less than pleasant to feel have been more or less stricken from the public discourse but in fact have their uses and even a certain beauty to them”
My favourite thinker here, and a book I come back to from time to time is Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul.
Many people think that the point in life is to solve their problems and be happy. But happiness is usually a fleeting sensation, and you never get rid of problems. Your purpose in life may be to become more who you are and more engaged with the people and the life around you, to really live your life. That may sound obvious, yet many people spend their time avoiding life. They are afraid to let it flow through them, and so their vitality gets channeled into ambitions, addictions, and preoccupations that don’t give them anything worth having. A dark night may appear, paradoxically, as a way to return to living. It pares life down to its essentials and helps you get a new start.
Here I want to explore positive contributions of your dark nights, painful though they may be. I don’t want to romanticize them or deny their dangers. I don’t even want to suggest that you can always get through them. But I do see them as opportunities to be transformed from within, in ways you could never imagine. A dark night is like Dante getting sleepy, wandering from his path, mindlessly slipping into a cave. It is like Alice looking at the mirror and then going through it. It is like Odysseus being tossed by stormy waves and Tristan adrift without an oar. You don’t choose a dark night for yourself. It is given to you. Your job is to get close to it and sift it for its gold.