How To Not Be A Pessimist In A World Of Terrible Bullshit

I refuse to accept that this is the best we can do for each other.

Even when the sun hits its apex, the Januarys around here are brutally cold. The cold’s only half of it, though. Despite the oppressive winter, it’s the only outside I have to go to, and so I bundle up and I go for a walk.

Although life feels frozen, it’s soon obvious that it isn’t. There’s a woman crossing a parking lot to intercept my walk up the sidewalk. She asks me if I can help her out with a dollar or two. I tell her I regret not having any cash with me and wish her luck.

As we’re parting, she mentions how she heard it’s going to get colder tonight. I tell her I heard the same thing. She turns and goes on her way, and I continue my walk.

I reflect on how many times I’ve encountered that same woman and all of the other times she’s asked me to spare a dollar or two for her. When I’ve been able to, I’ve helped her out. Sometimes she’ll sketch a picture of me in exchange for the money—drawings of me as a starfish or, more plainly, just sitting at a table eating birthday cake. Sometimes she offers nothing, and that’s OK with me.

As I round the corner, I’m unable to shake off the guilt for not having been able to help her out with some money. That’s followed with pessimism that tells me that even if I was able to hand her a few dollars, it’s not going to make a difference in her quality of life.

For a moment, I feel the conflict within me begin: Is that really how I want to be?

If I want, I can chase that thought off the cliff and start to question, more masochistically, what difference would it really make?

The problems of the woman I encountered are but a small strand in a giant web of ills in the world. It’s a web that’s bigger than her problems, bigger than my problems, bigger than any single person’s problems in this sickened culture.

So what difference would a couple of bucks make? What difference do any of the good or decent things I try to do really make?

Surrounded by seemingly insurmountable antagonists to peace, happiness, and life in general on the daily, it’s hard to imagine that things will ever get better. For every step forward, it often feels like society takes two tumbles back.

The larger the scope of all the injustice in the world becomes, the more suffocated I feel, daunted by the immensity of how hopelessly fucked we all are.

Personally, I have to push back a lot against accepting that conclusion, against the futility of trying to do better. Sometimes it sounds like the most agreeable option is to just quit.

But what then? Ignore racism because it doesn’t affect me? Put my fingers in my ears whenever someone tells me that the threat of rape for women is exaggerated?

To react in such a way would make me an abettor to injustice. And as hard as it is sometimes to resist pessimism, I refuse to allow it to conscript me into such a role.

I refuse to accept that this is the best we can do for each other.

Instead, I try to focus on how even though it may not be immediately apparent, people are actually capable of permanent, intrinsic change—which is a bit odd for me to say given how much I dislike behavior justified on mere faith.

However, it’s not purely belief or faith that informs my desire to see a more just world. Humanity has already demonstrated that it’s capable of doing better by others. In the United States, for example, a ground swell of acceptance of same-sex marriage has been taking place merely 10 years after it appeared that a federal ban seemed all but certain.

By no means is such quick change always the standard. More often, such cultural shifts require a lifetime—multiple lifetimes—to finally witness the fruits of such difficult labor. And if I’m not careful, impatience with such slow progress makes great fodder for pessimism.

I recall so many discussions in the gender studies classes I took in college that took up that dilemma, of how one is expected to reconcile the fact that all of the work you do in your lifetime to create a more equitable, safer culture likely won’t pay off until long after you’re gone. No one ever seemed to have a satisfactory answer to that, and I’m not sure I’m any closer to solving that problem all these years later.

One thing I have learned since then, though, is that if the only reason you’re doing this kind of work is for the immediate reward, then you’re always going to find yourself on the brink of pessimism and disappointment.

And even avoiding that pitfall isn’t always enough to successfully resist pessimism. Everybody’s got their own emotional limits in dealing with the frustration of slow progress, and acknowledging that you have those limits is not selfish. In fact, it’s best if you can identify those limits and recognize when it’s time for you to drop down a gear or two.

For me, when what I can offer no longer feels like enough, when I can’t remember what it was like when it wasn’t January here and the cold wasn’t always the enemy outside, I recall a Samuel Beckett quote a friend of mine shared with me years ago:

“In the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

I’ll go on. The world may not yet reflect the world I want to live in, but I’ll go on. However that may be, whatever that looks like, I’ll go on. Through the coldest Januarys, grappling with the despair that what I do never feels like enough, I’ll go on.

I won’t accept that this is the best we can do for each other.

I must go on.

Drew Bowling is a soon-to-be social worker who writes about gender, race, and other intersecting issues. His writing has appeared on Role Reboot, Everyday Feminism, the Good Men Project, as well as at his oft-neglected but much-adored blog, Reading Without MenTwitter is also a thing he does.

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