Nobody can say that things have been dull lately, and almost every morning we are forced to make a choice between optimism and pessimism about the future. The daily news urges us towards pessimism, which is all the more reason why we should push back as hard as we can. When this essay was first broadcast in January of 2018 I wrote:
“Let’s admit that, no matter how much we worry and complain, we are lucky to live here and now. If we consider the history of the human race as one big party we arrived at just the right moment. The party is in full swing, all inhibitions have been cast aside, and the drinks have not yet run out. We older folks may even miss the worst of the hangover.”
Three years later that paragraph looks positively Pollyannaish. The future always catches us by surprise, and in 2020 the gods who amuse themselves with our fate excelled themselves. No wonder we don’t like to think too hard about the future. The word “posterity” has practically vanished from the language. There’s no profit to be made out of posterity, and no votes there either. The future is wide open. We can believe what we like about it.
I you are a glass half empty sort of person you will always assume the worst: that it will rain, that the cat will sleep on your clean shirt, that your New Year’s resolutions are already doomed to be an utter failure, and that there will never ever be term limits on Congress. But, with a little creative thinking, we can discover reasons for optimism about practically everything. Our philosophical guide is the character Pangloss in Voltaire’s 1759 novel called Candide or Optimism. Pangloss held to the theory that “Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” No matter how many dreadful things happened to him—and many did—Pangloss always found an optimistic way to explain them. Even when he was hanged he looked on the bright side.
The secret of optimism is to look beyond petty personal things like death and taxes and take the long view—the longer the better. Consider some of the big things you might be worrying about: global warming, economic collapse, political dictatorship, and computers taking over the world from human beings.
Global warming will resolve one of the great cultural and geographical conflicts of our time. The good people of the American heartland have always suspected that the east and west coasts are little better than Sodom and Gomorrah, infested with atheists and liberals. I live here, and they’re right. But global warming will fix this. As the waters rise, we coastal people will have to leave the cities, move inland, stop believing in evolution and public broadcasting, and become proper Americans. We will all share one culture at last, and only one political party will be necessary, so dictatorship will be the natural system of government. As a bonus we won’t have to move to Florida for retirement. Florida will be under water.
The collapse of the economy under the burden of deficits will allow us to rediscover the virtues of poverty. There will be no more wild credit-driven excesses of consumerism, or outbursts of irrational exuberance on the stock exchange. We will learn to live simple, almost monastic lives out there in the heartland, with fewer possessions, and we will all lose weight.
So don’t worry, be happy. Everything will be fine if we just wait a while. The only cloud on the horizon is the fear that computers will take over the world from human beings before perfect happiness is achieved. I’m afraid it’s already too late to worry about that.