Eeyore the donkey is a pessimist. From the moment that he first appears in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, it’s clear that he lives and breathes pessimism:
The old grey donkey, Eeyore, stood by himself in a corner of the forest, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, “Why?” and sometimes he thought, “Wherefore?” and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?” – and sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about. So when Winnie-the-Pooh came stumping along, Eeyore was very glad to stop thinking for a little, in order to say “How do you do?” in a gloomy manner to him.
“And how are you?” said Winnie-the-Pooh.
Eeyore shook his head from side to side.
“Not very how,” he said. “I don’t seem to have felt at all how for a long time.”
“Dear, dear,” said Pooh, “I’m sorry about that. Let’s have a look at you.”
Introspective, cheerless, and vaguely addled, equal parts crank and cynic, a wet blanket in a world of cheerful optimism – this is the quintessential pessimist.
Or maybe it’s David Brooks of The New York Times. His impish grin and penchant for loud shirt-and-tie combinations masks, I’m convinced, reveals the psyche of a man stranded on a desert island with no hope of rescue — i.e., one on the very edge of shattering altogether. Sure, he delivers the standard political commentary and boilerplate eulogies for public figures like Ted Kennedy or Irving Kristol — no different from the stable of op-ed writers in most major newspapers. But the farther afield he goes, the wilder his aim gets; he criticizes celebrities for being insufficiently awed by contemporary events, and predicts one day that psychology will someday “replace misleading categories like ‘emotion’ and ‘reason.’”. And is it simple coincidence or a terrifying grasp into his subconscious when, in one column, he describes his total disillusionment with Republicans (“Are they really my guys? Do I have guys anymore?…I feel politically closer to Barack Obama than to House Minority Leader John Boehner (and that’s even while being greatly exercised about the current health care bills).”, and then in another column five days later wonders what would happen if a gamma-ray burst sterilized half the planet?
No faith in party identity, in high or low culture, in any political or economic institution at all: Brooks is starting to sound like a journalist version of Mad Max, a lone wolf who has nothing to rely on but himself in a post-apocalyptic world. Instead of Eeyore’s understated melancholia, we get the intellectual equivalent of someone windmilling their arms; at any rate, both seem a bit unbalanced, and both certainly qualify as pessimists. And nobody is exactly clamoring for their respective company, either in the Hundred Acre Wood or on the halls of political power (Tom Friedman, not Brooks, got to play golf with President Obama last month).
I’m caricaturing slightly, but my point is simple: nobody likes a pessimist. Or at least, nobody likes a pessimist except in the abstract. People can admire long-dead ones like Orwell, Camus, Milgram, or Nietzsche from afar, but faced with a pessimist in the next cubicle, however, workplace behavior guides recommend a strategy of forbearance, along with a healthy dose of amateur psychotherapy. And according to a study done at the University of Pittsburgh, pessimism might kill you, “as bad as having high blood pressure…when it comes to cardiovascular health.”
In other words, be warned, pessimists: having a disposition that’s slightly less than sunshine-y is like painting a bull’s-eye on yourself that all but invites sociological experimentation, heart disease, and the self-righteousness of others. Forget smokers and fat people as the last frontier of socially sanctioned discrimination: pessimists bear the brunt of a lot more social abuse, much of it subconscious. But in the era of hope and change, what chance did we pessimists possibly have to begin with?
The main problem, I think, is that people conflate those who make negative comments with those who have a wide range of unpleasant or anti-social personality traits; it’s an instance of the fundamental attribution error writ large. I’d rather drink with optimists because they’d probably make for pleasanter company, but I’d rather take advice from fellow pessimists, who (for their sometime lack of social graces) at least tend to better recognize the limits of reason, ability, faith, and the world around them. Good intentions and chirpiness are, in my opinion, no substitute for a firm grounding in reality. It’s certainly mathematically possible that there are happy, well-informed, non-delusional optimists somewhere out there, but I can’t think of any (if you can, though, let me know about it).
At the end of the day, it’s easy to keep Eeyore and David Brooks, and by extension, pessimists in general, at arm’s length. Eeyore is a voice of gloom in a fairy-tale world, which means he’s unnecessary by definition; Brooks is too concerned with his political orphanage (which is boring and self-absorbed) or bizarre distillations of big ideas (which never quite work in a mere 22 column inches) to take seriously. It’s too easy to box the co-worker in the next cubicle as a hypochondriac — even as you patiently wait for his or her heart to give out — just as it was too easy for Spiro Agnew to tar his political opponents with the (William Safire-penned) phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
But that gives short shrift to the pessimists who do have something important and informed to say. The best example, of course, is Nouriel Roubini, “Dr. Doom,” the economist who defied conventional economic wisdom and correctly predicted the mechanics behind the “Great Recession” — the imminent bursting of a housing bubble, the collapse of investment banks and the credit market, bank losses numbering not in the billions but trillions of dollars. He was, of course, dismissed as a “permabear,” and economists and policymakers alike ignored what turned out to be uncomfortable truths for the simple reasons that, as far as I can tell, nobody likes to be told that they’re wrong, and nobody likes a pessimist.
It’s a story that dates back to Homer’s Iliad, in fact. Cassandra, the daughter of the Trojan king Priam, was given the gift of prophecy, and then cursed such that no one would believe her predictions. She warned Paris that kidnapping Helen would lead to the fall of Troy, and tried to convince fellow Trojans not to bring that big, mysterious wooden horse within the walls of the city. And obviously, no one believed her.
Replace the Trojan horse with mortgage-backed securities, and you have a cautionary tale for the twenty-first century. And, I hope, it gives you a compelling reason to listen to your local pessimist once in a while, even if you can’t bring yourself to sympathize with them. Not all of us are stuffed donkeys.