Saturday, February 17, 2007

Optimism and Truth

By Richard E. Noble

“Listen you; go back inside that bedroom and when you come back out, I want to see a smile on your face.”
I have a friend who was told this by an adopting uncle of his when he was still a young boy. To my friend - who is no longer a young boy - this story is of major significance. For my friend this was a life changing moment. It seems that this little incident turned my buddy from a perpetual sad sack into Norman Vincent Peele. From that day forward, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, my friend has been a tower of “positive thinking” - sometimes a slightly leaning tower, but nevertheless a tower.
Then there was “John the Chicken Man”. John the Chicken Man worked at the meat packing house where I was employed for my first full time job in life. As you may have guessed John was the guy in charge of the chicken department. Whenever there was a problem that related to chickens all my co-workers would say; Go talk to John the Chicken Man.
John the Chicken Man was also a part time philosopher. He always had long, involved, often penetrating answers to any question. I liked John. And one day he told me, “Happy people are people who think about happy things or things that make them happy. Unhappy people are people who think about sad things or things that make them unhappy. If you are an unhappy person you have got to stop thinking about unhappy things and start remembering good things, not bad things.
I liked that idea. And whenever I find that I am unhappy I force myself to think about things that once made me happy. And then pretty soon, I am happy once again.
In opposition to my old friends there are others of equal wisdom, for example, Clarence Darrow. Clarence wrote an essay on the advantages of pessimism. He considered optimists to be delusional and unable to cope with reality. He said that optimists were like drug addicts. The only way that they can stay happy is to escape from the “truth” or reality and continually inject themselves with “happy-thought” drugs.
And then there was the poet Robert Service who wrote a poem entitled “Compensation Bill”. Compensation Bill was the kind of a guy who if he lost one foot, rejoiced because a pair of socks now lasted twice as long.
And then we have Voltaire and his “Candide”. Candide was Voltaire’s cynical answer to all those who promoted the idea that this is “the best of all possible worlds” - more specifically a guy by the name of Leibniz.
Then there is that notion about “truth” setting you free. If we accept “truth” as what is; or as what really is, then the truth isn’t always happy; it often isn’t even positive.
So then who is right on this issue - my old friend and John the Chicken Man with their Compensation Bill mentality or Clarence Darrow, Voltaire, Robert Service and the entire chorus of Greek Stoic Philosophers?
I know that Voltaire and that crowd are closer to the truth - but my old buddy and John the Chicken Man always seem to bring me out of the dumps much more often than facing the truth or reading Epictetus or even Marcus Aurelius - even though I know that I’m lying to myself. So I guess that the answer is to face the truth - but only when it is absolutely impossible to make up a better story.

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