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If You're Happy but Don't Know It…

October 12th, 2005 | 3 min read

By Tex

Having completed my instrument check ride, I’ve found time to comment on the topic of pessimism and optimism. Forgive the lateness of my response.

Let’s say that the optimist and pessimist are those who believe the universe is all good or all bad; if we allow for this definition then we have room for someone like a realist who does not attempt to twist the universe to conform with an idea in his head, but rather soberly evaluates the universe and seeks to understand it as it is. Thus we have three types of people: the incorrigible optimist like the waiting woman from Voltaire’s Candide (who, by the way, is an amazing woman…she loses most of her backside and then is forced to ride for miles on a horse and still manages to convince herself that everything is good), the stubborn pessimist like Milne’s Eyeore (perhaps not the strongest example, but it will probably rain tomorrow anyways), and the realist who was described above. It is only the realist that can learn to be happy (or unhappy) because he isn’t already committed to and ideal which he forces on the world around him. It is his task to discover if there are reasons to hope or if there are reasons to despair and then lives accordingly.

Keith set me the rather daunting task of explaining in a blog my reasons for thinking we have reasons to hope rather than despair. I will attempt to lay a rough sketch of my ideas below.

Innocent people think that life is good and that it is normal to be happy. Cynical people are viewed as mature when they give up their pre-rational belief that life is good and enter into despair. This phenomenon was commented on earlier by Keith. I find it interesting that the normal, pre-rational (or prior to reflection) response of humans to life is generally one of hope expressed in a belief that life is good. Being a good democratic man, my first impulse is to give the benefit to this majority opinion of humanity.

Of course, this pre-rational belief cannot be sustained indefinitely because various difficult and heart-rending events will occur, forcing an examination of the true nature of the cosmos. It is at this point that other beliefs will usually enter the picture and help shape the response of the individual to the overwhelming difficulties and pain they experience. My response has largely been shaped by my belief in grace and redemption through the person of Jesus Christ; my reasons for holding this belief are many and varied, but will have to be withheld at this point in the interest of pursuing the topic at hand (but I am open to comment and questions about my reasons for these beliefs as well).

I think, though, that some progress can be made without appealing to outside beliefs in order to determine the nature of the cosmos. I offer four ways to begin:

1. What is goodness (and what is badness)? If things like existence, reason, and the senses are goods then the universe as we know it could not exist if it were not basically good. Thus, the pain and seeming evil that we encounter must be viewed as a change or addition to a basically good thing–a sort of virus or parasite, if you will. If pain, evil, and the numerous difficulties that shake the pre-rational belief in life as good are are not basic to the universe but only leeches, then they cannot be used to establish that the universe is basically bad
2. What is the purpose or goal of human life? The purpose of human life may be something that is not contrary to pain and suffering; thus even the difficulties that we encounter might be goods insofar as they enable a man to fulfill his purpose.
3. Why do we enter life with a belief that it is both good and real? If there are any valid reasons for this belief, and beliefs to the contrary cannot be established without first appealing to this pre-rational belief (if only to destroy it), then the priority and foundationalism of the pre-rational belief seems to be established
4. What is beauty? If beauty exists in any form, it points to the basic goodness of the universe as beauty is not found in pain, suffering, and hardships when they are completely divorced from goodness. All the fun of singing about tragedy, of despairing over pain and suffering arises from the ability of humans to see some beauty (and so some goodness or something redeemable) in the situation.