“That’s not being realistic.”
“That’s just the way things are.”
“You need to see reality.”
Comments like this seem to be frequent these days. We seem resigned to accepting the worst. High crime, fear, economic and social inequality, wage slavery, and a dwindling chance to reach our dreams. And the moment that someone tries to reach out of the mire, they are told their hopes for change are unrealistic fantasies.
“Reality” is a funny term. It is vast and incomprehensible, yet we can wrap it up in a neat and tidy package of seven little letters. It is a chaotic dance of detail too exhaustive to measure, yet by creating the word, we claim to finitely know what it is. It is, in reality (pun intended), an abstraction, an intangible and fluid concept we’ve puzzled together from the more concrete experiences we’ve had while living within it.
If we were to look at reality as a whole, we would crumble. To function, we need to know enough laws of cause and effect to to be able to predict what actions we will need to take to result in both having our needs met, and avoiding the dangers that may lurk around the corner. If we can’t do that, we can’t function. And yet, we can’t fully know every detail, every interaction, and every aspect of the world around us. It just isn’t humanly possible. Our understanding of the world is limited by our restricted senses, the finite brain it informs, and the body, fixed in an infinitesimally small portion of time and space, that houses it all. Because of this, our ability to predict and function is limited. In the end, we are still powerless and vulnerable to the whims of reality were it to become unleashed. The comfort you gain by the limited predictability is destroyed when you consider what you can’t foresee: the drunk driver, the lost job, the lightning bolt, the zombie hoard, etc. Despite what we try to control and understand, the chaos of reality hangs over our heads like an existential sword of Damocles.
Luckily, we have ways to deal with the unrestrained and overwhelming terror of reality. It’s called “lying.”
In order to deal with reality, we have to reduce it down to what we can function with. We have to filter out those details we can’t use, and those dangers we can’t defend against. Knowing the number of blades of grass on your lawn will not serve you in any way. Likewise, it is nearly impossible to predict or control if and when you will have an aneurism, or if a carload of armed thugs will open fire on your home while your sleep, so you put them out of your mind. But in addition to that, we have to create reasons why we ignore those details or dangers, we have to make our dismissal “realistic.” These dismissals are our existential lies that make the extra details unimportant, and those dangers magically impossible. Most of the time, these lies are harmless, they serve to to make reality livable for us. But other times, we filter out too much, and our lies serve to injure ourselves and others.
The Dalai Lama once noted that we need to distinguish between that which has been proven not to exist, and what has not been proven to exist. When one ignores what has been proven not to exist, one’s lies causes him or her to overestimate possibility, and he or she becomes vulnerable to an otherwise predictable harm. The link between autism and vaccination has been debunked and disproved, for instance, and to deny a child a vaccine on these grounds leaves the child vulnerable to infection by the measles, mumps, and rubella viruses. It is here that the pessimist, the cynic, and the positivist find their strengths. Pessimism is an orientation towards seeing dangers and loss. Positivism orients a person to what is concrete and known only. Cynicism is an orientation away from risk. Each of these orientations has some merit. The pessimist’s guard is protective. The cynic’s defeatism keeps him or her from expending energy actions that result in failure. The positivist’s concrete grounding put’s him or her in a very secure and verifiable world. In many ways, these orientations have given a lot to society: pessimism has protected us from dangers, the cynic’s conservatism has helped us not to overreach and expend ourselves, and the basis of science lies on the concreteness of positivism. It may very well be that these benefits are what reinforce the view that these orientations are more “realistic.”
The problem is that they are not.
Though each of these orientations has a very good handle of what is proven not to exist, they also too quickly discount what has not been proven to exist. Postitivism, for instance, though very good with working with concrete and objective phenomenon, cannot handle the more subjective and abstract. Positivism has allowed us to know the sub-atomic quark, but it cannot say a thing about love, or when it tries, it can only tell us about chemical reactions associated to when such an experience is reported. A world of pure posivitism is knowable and secure, but it lacks love, justice, peace, and goodness, because these concepts cannot be defined in concrete ways. Cynicism and pessimism, though they protect us from danger and loss, also restrain us from hope and success. Optimists, those on the other end of the spectrum from the cynic and the pessimist, live longer and recover better from medical problems than pessimists. According to Martin Seligman’s book “Learned Optimism,” optimists also are less depressed, more psychologically resilient, and are more likely to be successful. Part of the explanation given is that because optimists are more oriented towards hope, they tend to seek out more solutions, such as seeking medical help when needed and are more likely to take risks that ensure achievement. The success of the optimist acts as a natural experiment to show that it can be just as grounded, if not more so, in reality as pessimism.
Does this mean that blind faith, blind optimism, or subjective relativism is more realistic than cynicism, pessimism, and positivism? Of course not. as mentioned before, there are important benefits to pessimism, cynicism and positivism that should not be discarded. Instead, the task of life is to constantly decide when, and to what degree, each stance is necessary. We need to know when to ground ourselves in a concrete knowledge, and when to explore the personal experiences of life. We need to know when avoid danger, and when to risk seeking help. We need to wrestle with when to conserve our energy, and when to reach for glory. Doing so isn’t easy, and we will often fail in this struggle. But doing so is also being more real.