Every day there is cruelty somewhere in the world. Some days – as after the Texas church shooting – our hearts simply break. But the world also is full of kindness and care.
Our estimation of life is a matter of perspective. Optimism and pessimism depend on where we look. But what matters most is what you do. If you are sick of the bad news, turn off the television and go out and make some good news.
An old truism holds that the pessimist see the glass as half-empty while the optimist sees it as half-full. But active and engaged people don’t bother to measure the contents of their cups. They savor what they’ve got, drink it down, then go looking for a refill.
One name for this approach is meliorism. Meliorists want to make things better – to ameliorate them. Meliorists are pragmatists. They don’t ignore the evils of life. But they see setbacks as challenges to be overcome, rather than disasters that doom us to defeat.
There always are obstacles and work to be done. Pragmatists discover joy in that work. There is meaning and purpose in the process of planning, building and improving things.
This pragmatic philosophy is typically American. It is the guiding idea of American philosophers such as William James and John Dewey.
Dewey said, “Meliorism is the belief that the specific conditions which exist at one moment, be they comparatively bad or comparatively good, in any event may be bettered.” James explained, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”
This idea can also be found in the philosophical musings of Eleanor Roosevelt. She explained, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for new and richer experience. You can do that only if you have curiosity, and an unquenchable spirit of adventure.”
This adventurous ethos makes sense in the context of our immigrant and pioneer heritage. People come to America to build and create, explore and grow. Pioneers and immigrants don’t rest at home, criticizing and complaining. They work and build. And if they don’t like things here, they move on to greener pastures.
Related to this is something we might call zest, gusto, or joie de vivre. The basic love of life fills active people with energy and enthusiasm. They awake in the morning eager to learn, explore and create.
Lack of energy breeds cynicism. The cynic fails to enjoy life. And so he judges and mocks those who do. But vivacious people don’t have time for cynicism. They are too busy living. And they improve life by embracing it with dynamism and imagination.
Pessimists will complain that energetic engagement with the world demands too much effort. Some pessimists see the need for work as a sign of an imperfect world. But this is lazy and short-sighted. Life requires labor. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. There is no way around this basic fact.
Pessimists are disappointed the world is not perfect. But a perfect world would be boring. It is the challenges in life that get the juices flowing. It is work that gives life meaning.
Optimism also involve intellectual laziness. The optimist’s rose-colored glasses screen out tragedy and loss. They look the other way, deliberately ignoring suffering and pain. But this is a recipe for disaster. If we ignore the evils of life, we will fail to take precautions to prevent them.
Loss and pain cannot be ignored. This world includes genuine evils. But sweat and tears provide the salt that helps us savor the sweet times. And kindness and care can make the world a better place.
A good life is never simply given to us. It is built on prudent planning, creative problem solving and hard work.
Optimists ignore the need for prudence, hoping things will turn out fine. Pessimists roll their eyes, disappointed that life requires effort. The rest of us – the majority of hard-working, pragmatic people – roll up our sleeves, wipe away the sweat and tears, and get back to work.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala