“Empires and cultures are not permanent and while thinking about the possibility that ours is collapsing may seem a dismal exercise it is far less so than enduring the frustrations, failures, damage and human casualties involved in constantly butting up against reality like a boozer who insists he is not drunk attempting to drive home. Peter Ustinov in ‘Romanoff and Juliet’ says at one point: “I’m an optimist: I know how bad the world is. You’re a pessimist: you’re always finding out.” Or as GK Chesterton put it, “We must learn to love life without ever trusting it.”
Happiness, courage and passion in a bad time can only be based on myth as long as reality does not intrude. Once it does, our indifference to it will serve us no better than it does the joy riding teenager whose assumption of immortality comes into contact with a tree. But this does not mean that one must live in despair. An ability to confront and transcend- rather than deny, adjust to, replace, recover from, or succumb to- the universe in which you find yourself is among the things that permits freedom and courage.
To view our times as decadent and dangerous, to mistrust the government, to imagine that those in power are not concerned with our best interests is not paranoid but perceptive; to be depressed, angry or confused about such things is not delusional but a sign of consciousness. Yet our culture suggests otherwise.
But if all this is true, then why not despair? The simple answer is this: despair is the suicide of imagination. Whatever reality presses upon us, there still remains the possibility of imagining something better, and in this dream remains the frontier of our humanity and its possibilities To despair is to voluntarily close a door that has not yet shut. The task is to bear knowledge without it destroying ourselves, to challenge the wrong without ending up on its casualty list. “You don’t have to change the world,” the writer Colman McCarthy has argued. “Just keep the world from changing you.”
Oddly, those who instinctively understand this best are often those who seem to have the least reason to do so- survivors of abuse, oppression, and isolation who somehow discover not so much how to beat the odds, but how to wriggle around them. They have, without formal instruction, learned two of the most fundamental lessons of psychiatry and philosophy:
You are not responsible for that into which you were born. You are responsible for doing something about it.
These individuals move through life like a skilled mariner in a storm rather than as a victim at a sacrifice. Relatively unburdened by pointless and debilitating guilt about the past, uninterested in the endless regurgitation of the unalterable, they free themselves to concentrate upon the present and the future. They face the gale as a sturdy combatant rather than as cowering supplicant.”