Andres Maimik: Lent of negative thinking
I have always recoiled from senseless positivism, Andres Maimik writes in an essay first published in Sirp magazine.
Whenever I hear an interview with a pop star who says, "super-super fantastic," "so very cool," or "very-very cute," I get goosebumps, and not in a good way. Whenever a self-help guru exclaims, "The sky is the limit when your heart is in it," I feel tempted to reply, "Suck my d**k, baby. Some are born to endless night."
Most people who believe that setting goals and working tirelessly to achieve them will eventually deliver a breakthrough never become as successful, famous or wealthy as their ambition suggested. For every pizza boy Dustin Hoffman or apprentice cabinetmaker Harrison Ford, there are thousands of aspirants who remain pizza boys and carpenters.
Maxims I'm more comfortable with include, "a pessimist is just an informed optimist" and "an optimist can never be positively surprised." The ancient stoics tended to agree. What causes tragedy is our understanding of the world, not the world itself. In order to survive any trouble and trauma, one needs to prepare for the worst. Seneca is rumored to have said that swallowing a toad in the morning makes the rest of the day seem far less unpleasant.
Pessimism does not stand for seeing the world as a gloomy place but simply peace of mind. One's expectations need to be compatible with what's on offer. Oliver Burkeman finds that attempts to suppress one's feelings will end in the opposite – being defeated by them.
People with low self-esteem who tell themselves that they are lovable characters will end up feeling even worse as a result of provoking the counterargument that they are complete trash. "Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone," zen philosopher Alan Watts says.
The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a kind of negativity far removed from stoic ideals. Anxiety caused by isolation and financial uncertainty requires an explanation. However, simple explanations tend to flow into the muddy bed of conspiracy theories – a mess is usually someone's fault.
Social media echo chambers have worked to amplify eschatological hysteria: the mainstream media is brainwashing us, big pharma is putting us on the hook, tech giants are either directly or indirectly chipping us. According to this train of thought, rules that tread on individual rights are not a common protective shield but rather a bureaucratic attempt to dial back freedoms that we are born into. The fear of the pandemic is used to turn obedient citizens into a manipulated mass to be controlled by the invisible hand of multinational Soroses and Gates.
Revolting against the rules is as hard-coded into the human psyche as complete and utter loyalty. As a child, I admired punks who didn't give a toss and fearless dissidents. An intellectual swimming upstream, prepared to march against a hail of bullets is a more romantic character than a complacent claqueur.
However, a distinction needs to be made here. The protest today is not a real one because there is no risk involved. No one's life is on the line, no one will be deported to Siberia. It is the welfare man's convenience-born yammer over temporary unpleasantness. No matter how dramatic one manages to sound when exclaiming "I'm not allowed to party," it can never be equated to "I cannot breathe," which is why I dare label this particular protest spirit as asocial.
This period of isolation should be used to really isolate, for a physical and mental lent – it is not such a bad idea after all. To go on a diet and media diet. To refrain from getting riled up on social media and only consume vital messages. To calm down and come off of hysterical ruminations of how I'm being wronged and where will it all end up.
Things that are not in your field of decision-making need to be left out of focus. Attention paid to loved ones. To finally make good on the promise of spending more time with the kids, read the books piled up on the bedside table, renovate the house and generate business plans for when life gets underway again. To write a book. Enjoy one's body – ski, run, have sex and jump into ice-cold water.
And to do all of it in a stoic state of mind – to be prepared for anything while thinking about something else.
There is no sense falling into self-pity or hiking the horizon of one's pretension. Instead, one should concentrate on what is there. Allow me to return to Alan Watts in closing: "This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play."
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Editor: Marcus Turovski