Last week, myself (along with some members of the Political Science Association) were fortuitous enough to have had the chance to billet a bunch of university students from Leiden in the Netherlands. In speaking with the Dutch students, I noticed something very fundamentally different between their European attitudes and our increasingly American attitudes.
On the day of their departure, they were to drive to British Columbia. While we were sitting in the Education Block food court chatting before their departure, we locals warned of the treacherous stretch of the Trans Canada Highway between Field and Golden. A response from one of the students caught my attention and still sticks today.
"Oh, it doesn't matter. If I die, then I have nothing to lose," he shrugged. "If our plane crashes on our way home, then it's alright. Well, my parents would be upset, but..."
That was the quote that made my jaw drop. For a North American, those would be extremely fatalistic words, but for him it seemed almost natural. I mean, he couldn't be older than 20 or 21, and here he is, ready to face his maker. I was quite stunned for a while after I heard those words and the disbelief made way to thought.
Later that evening, I finally came to the conclusion that as North Americans we are optimistic--perhaps a bit too optimistic. While we do have our pessimists, the North American brand of optimism has almost leeched itself into the psyche, and this leech that is our culture of extreme optimism.
Everyone thinks they can win an election, everyone thinks war can be avoided by just talking. That's extreme optimism, blindly looking for positives when in reality they simply don't exist. We've all had our experiences in extreme optimisim, we've partied all weekend and realized we had a test on Monday. We cram and cram on Sunday night, take the test on Monday and hope that it won't kill our GPA.
How it hurts when it turns out badly. Extreme optimism strikes again.
Don't get me wrong, I am not an extreme optimist in any way. While optimism is good, too much of it is bad, too much of anything is bad. Unfortunately, it is the prevailing sense of being overoptimistic that is dragging our society down. When times are bad, we are optimistic we can one day return to the days of old.
Just look at George W. Bush. Recently, he proclaimed the United States would stay, fight and win in Iraq. The first two are given--but "win?" Win what? 500 dead bodies to add to the collection at Arlington National Cemetery? Cheaper oil tainted with both Iraqi and American blood? There is an extreme optimism in those words that exceeds gulibility, but that sort of thing is a whole different case besides just being extremely optimistic.
Extreme optimism is here to stay in our culture, but maybe, just maybe, we can look on the other side of the coin once in a while. There's no shame in it. If you feel bad, who cares? If it means dragging somebody else down, then by all means go for it.
Pessimism might be bad to you, but give it a try. For every yin there's gotta be a yang. And for some optimism there's gotta be some pessimism. We all need a dose of reality like we need a dose of caffeine, and fate is a far harsher dealer of reality than ourselves.