This is real life in the country: a week without email, broad-band, Googling, faxes. Outside the M25, BT operate on a manana timetable, blaming the ‘outside contractors’ who have to dig the hole where the fault resides. Pleas for common sense and speed are in vain. And then, suddenly, the broadband re-appears. After a giddy zoom through the emails, a guilty click onto Amazon.co.uk. A book has been recommended for me, based on my earlier choices: Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit by Joshua Foa Dienstag.
I know that computers don’t possess consciousness, but this could be the choice of someone who can read my bone marrow. As I click on to Pessimism, I do mental inventory of my ‘recent history’ a boxed set of seasons 1-6 of The West Wing, Patrick Holford’s The Alzheimer’s Prevention Plan trying to figure out what data computes me as a ‘melancholic with buying power’. I latch on to a line from a review of the book ‘pessimists are generally more engaging and entertaining than optimists’ because I like to think that my pessimism, although rampant, is not dour. I see myself more as a lapsed optimist, or, to rephrase Melanie Phillips, an optimist mugged by reality. Still, I feel primed to tackle Mr Dienstag’s theory that the biggest difference between optimists and pessimists is in how they view time, the optimist striding forward to create a better world, the pessimist seeing progress as a burden laden with hidden costs.
The problem is that the basis of my pessimism is simpler: as long as George W. Bush is in the White House (and Tony Blair is his compliant and subser-vient partner) nothing will get better. Afghanistan will be a war without end, Al-Quaeda will grow, Iraq sinks into civil war. I could go further. As long as we build more runways and make way for ever-more airplanes and cheap flights, greenhouse gases will proliferate. As long as politicians rely on war chests of campaign money, they will be indebted to contributors. The dreamy optimist watches President Bartlet on The West Wing and believes that if only we had the right president, we could save the world; the pessimist knows that changing the direction of civilisation is more complicated than regime change.
I try to date my embrace of pessimism. Each year at this time, watching the film footage of a bright object flashing in the sky, followed by a puff of smoke, then the towers tumbling down, I think perhaps that 9/11 was the beginning. But I never believed that ‘the world will never be the same’ men walk on the moon, AIDS kills millions, sea levels rise, wars are won and lost, but hey, life goes on. The gut reaction of an optimist. It’s everything that has happened since 9/11 that has sapped my natural-born optimism.
I believe pessimism is a rank weed, but optimism needs tending. So I’ve begun a new regime. All the postcards I’ve bought over the years and never sent are now in a box by my bed. Each night before I turn out my light, I take a card and write five things I’m grateful for. A close friend at the Marsden with a rare cancer is given a hopeful report by her oncologist. A British scientist thinks the hole in the ozone layer may be closing. My husband is walking five miles a day. I don’t live in Iraq/Israel/Palestine/Lebanon/Afghanistan. George Bush won’t be president forever. And I didn’t add Pessimism to my Amazon shopping cart…
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 7 September 06, 2006.