Why I’m Embracing My Inner Pessimist

I’m usually a happy person, but considering all the news of late, I’m beginning to wonder if we’re all just screwed.

Coming back from vacation in northern Vermont a few weeks ago, my husband and I fantasized about buying a piece of land up there and building a cottage off the grid. The land would have to be in some utopian mountaintop location that is simultaneously extremely remote and near a community of people with skills we don’t have. The cottage would have geothermal or solar power, a productive well, a large vegetable garden, a hen house, and somehow, we don’t know how, a cloak of invisibility. Short of that, there would be a key to the deadbolt that we’d one day give to our daughter when we’re very old and say, “Go there. If things get really bad, just go there. It’s yours.”

Every mother has dark fears about her children. It starts when we are pregnant and dream about forgetting to feed our baby or leaving our baby in her car seat in the Market Basket parking lot and accidentally driving away. Then later the private fears—the ones we never talk to anyone about—revolve around fatal bicycle accidents or leukemia or school massacres. Because mothers (and fathers, I assume) have these morbid, intrusive thoughts on occasion doesn’t mean we can’t function and be happy; we just know that children will live or die whether we are beside them or not.

There is no greater vulnerability.

I often write about politics, but today is not one of those days. I’ve never been as down about humanity as I am now, and it’s not just because of ISIS or Putin or Ferguson or climate change. Those are all great reasons to wonder whether our species actually deserves to survive on this planet, but ultimately Darwin will have his way, and there isn’t much I can personally do about it besides imagining how to become a hermit in Vermont if it comes to that, and writing about my neuroses.

I’ve decided to embrace my inner pessimist because it keeps me real.

For me, pessimism is about looking at the facts, but it doesn’t mean I don’t see the good in most people, or can’t spot Mr. Rogers’ “helpers” in times of crisis.

It also doesn’t mean that I’m unhappy or depressed—I’m neither. I’m just one of those people who rejects the notion that you can live a happy life or a meaningful one, but not both. I actively seek the latter, and it brings me the former.

Pain is a part of life, and it can be motivating. But I’m happy! I have the gift of an immensely fulfilling second marriage; I have a loving relationship with my daughter that I am grateful for every day; I get a lot of satisfaction out of my work and my writing; I go out with friends; I drink martinis and eat delicious meals in lovely restaurants and sometimes (but not too often) narcissistically post photos of these meals on Facebook.

But if you ask me whether I think we’re screwed, I do. I’ll make the best of things in the meantime, while my husband and I plot ways to survive and help our daughter survive if I’m right about what’s in store for us a few decades out. Then I can hope that I’m wrong. Cynicism isn’t always a pose.

How long do canned goods last? Five years? Maybe 10? If I stock the cottage in Vermont with cases and cases of canned beans and fruit cocktail, I’d be like those fools who built bomb shelters in the ‘50s, but instead of avoiding bombs, I’d be trying to avoid the zombie apocalypse of climate refugees with guns. But what about bombs, and airplane-bombs? They’re still a threat, especially if we have a bunch of ISIS terrorists who are American citizens with passports. Maybe a backwoods cottage is the wrong idea. All of this is silly.

We’ll never build that cottage in Vermont. We don’t have the money, and our daughter wouldn’t have the faintest clue how to grow her own food or maintain her own geothermal heat pump. That cottage is a metaphor for hope, and when my husband and I conjure its fruit trees and solar panels and stocked pantries, we are imagining a kind of control over our circumstances and a self-sufficiency that can triumph over a chaotic future. A thermodynamic system, like the heat pump we envision, creates order out of chaos. I learned that lesson on entropy in high school physics but don’t ask me to explain it.

Do you think I’m weird for considering such things? I may regret asking that question when I read the comments. Here’s what it comes down to for me: I need to find a way to reconcile what is going on in the world with some path to redemption for all of us. I’m a part of the human race, and we’re the only animals who have ever marched relentlessly toward destroying each other and the planet that hosts us, and we march so obliviously, with blinders on made of hate, bigotry, and self-righteousness.

The cottage is just fantasy. It’s a Holy Grail that remains shimmering and ephemeral. It focuses me on how to live the best life I can during the journey, because no one knows how or when it will all end. I think we’re screwed, but I’m going to avoid the navel-gazing that is so uniquely American. I’ll pay attention and be angry if that’s called for, and I’ll stand up when standing up is required, and I still want to make my daughter proud of me.

Call me a pessimist. I embrace it, and you, and so much more.

Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, and speaks on the topic of raising girls in a disempowering marketing and media culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.

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