I hear it all the time at University of Richmond. Every week, every semester, from friends and peers.
“I probably failed that test.”
Even though you’ve missed almost no class this semester and got A's or B's on all the other assignments and tests.
“If I don’t get into this sorority, my college life is over.”
Even though your roommate is great and you have loads of friends outside of Greek life who love you and care about you.
“I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t get the classes or housing I want.”
Even though you said this last year and it all worked out fine. Even though you’re at a top-notch private university where you can work with your adviser or dean to fix any significant scheduling or housing problems that may arise.
Pessimism is everywhere.
It forms in our minds and leaks into our words, alters our emotions and ultimately sabotages our self-esteem. It makes us paranoid and anxious in situations where neither is warranted. It is draining to constantly anticipate the worst of people, places, organizations and ultimately oneself.
This last bit is especially important. Pessimism, like all other worldviews, originates from the self as a product of deliberate choice. We choose pessimism -- it only exists because we want it to. It is not, as its proponents tend to claim, a “natural” response to a cold and unfriendly universe. Instead, pessimism is the overt denial of one’s talents, abilities, virtues and accomplishments -- or those of other people or circumstances -- and is often used (wrongly) as a substitute for humility. Whereas humility seeks to focus attention on the good qualities of others, pessimism denies the good qualities of oneself and others.
It is hopelessness disguised as humility but succeeds only at degrading the soul.
If pessimism were just another opinion people held, it would hardly be worth writing about. I argue, however, that the consequences of pessimism are as real as any other choice we make for ourselves. We are all probably familiar with the following syllogism, rooted in Zen philosophy: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become deeds. Watch your deeds, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character.”
The way that we think about things has real-life implications for who we are and what we do. We become what we think. To deliberately choose to think of the world in pessimistic terms would, logically, render a person unnecessarily depressed or unhappy.
Those unsatisfied with my critique of pessimism claim that they choose their worldview based on the preponderance of evidence available, implying that there is overwhelming evidence that things aren’t that great in the world. I refute this claim on the grounds of subjectivity. A half glass of water sits on the table. The pessimist says it is half empty, I say it is half full. Who is correct?
Truth be told, it probably doesn’t matter here, or in most scenarios in which college students find themselves. What matters is what they choose, because it is a choice. I can choose to anticipate the worst in everything — housing, registration, grades or even what’s being served tonight at D-hall — and likely become buried in my own negativity. Or, I can anticipate good. I can choose optimism.
College is like climbing a mountain, so why fill your pack with rocks?
Contact contributor Maddie Bright at firstname.lastname@example.org.