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Pessimism and optimism

September 14th, 2005 | 3 min read

By Keith E. Buhler

Nickel Creek's new album is a haunting and bitter portrait of a cynical twenty-something man experiencing "aporia," that is, a sort of paralyzing disillusionment, with his wicked way of life. The music is to my taste, especially "Helena" and "Can't Complain," but the words (once I paid attention to them) describe the various inner worlds of self-destructive, self-loathing, despairing people. "She can't complain," is about an unapologetic cheater complaining to his girlfriend that she can't complain because 'I warned her; I'm a guy.' "Somebody more like you" is another break-up song, where the heartbreaker's words "we're just so different" lead him to wish she finds someone "more like her," that is, just as small. The gruesome "Best of Luck" is a first person account of, apparently, a high school teacher who sleeps with one of his students, and the trauma and regret of keeping their love hidden.

Some of the songs seem autobiographical, some seem hypothetical and thus ironically critical... a sort of satire. But the spirit that runs through most the album (the exceptions being the instrumental songs, and those including the relievingly sweet voice of the female singer) is a bitterness that I guess is most true to the songwriter's heart.

Now, my friend's and I unanimously agree that the album is more mature. The music is less peppy, fun, "hey let's play a banjo" music, and more serious, more intentional, from someone a ways farther down the road of life.

Why is it that cynicism and unhappiness represent movement towards maturity?

I told a friend that, after reading the gut wrenching lyrics of "Helena," that I would stop listening to the album. I do not want to dwell with such bitterness. He objected by saying "it's tragic, man, it's high art!"

Ah, now we're getting somewhere. Tragedy, let us say, is something like the dramatic presentation of a pessimistic worldview. I will take it for granted that pessimism and optimism, bad and good, negative and positive, are basic categories, and of some roughly analogous parallel.

It seems pessimism is pessimism of something... with regard to something. I am pessimistic that even reading five hours a day I will digest the amount of philosophy, theology, and science that will make me a learned person. I am optimistic in the scientific enterprise, that it will eventually extend the physical lifespan of mankind.

OK, so can a person be optimistic in a general sense, "Everything is going to turn out well," while pessimistic with regard to specific means? "Everything is going to turn out well, but narcotics are not the means to this end." It seem so to me, right now.

A teacher of mine once said, "No one follows a pessimist." The pessimist, the complainer, the protester, is always second-best... requiring a self-initiating person to fight against. Therefore all leaders are optimistic, or leaders are leaders insofar as they have a vision for things going well. And all leaders have a corresponding set of "pessimisms," of beliefs that X or Y does not work.

We must be careful, which leader we are following, or which optimistic vision within ourselves we are believing, lest what promises good things but fails to deliver deceive us with empty optimism. There is some ideal ratio, methinks, of optimism to pessimism that will lead to the best life, whether this means a happy life or a sad one.

I hope this is a basic introduction to the categories and a few of the issues... More on optimism and pessimism, with a view to comedy and tragedy, later.

I welcome thoughts, questions...