Be pessimistic when you’re young, but optimistic when you’re old

The optimist is on the right hand side of the picture, with her arm round the pessimist.

The optimist is on the right hand side of the picture, with her arm round the pessimist.

Be pessimistic while you’re young, but optimistic when you get older. Do you agree?

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the message from Diana Athill in her entertaining autobiographical installment  Somewhere Towards The End.

To boil it down further: Be thankful, be appreciative, be optimistic. (Don’t worry too much about being pessimistic at all.)

It’s not just Diana Athill’s credo – she was inspired by newspaper interview with 100+-year old Holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer.

According to Alice, people are born either pessimistic or optimistic.

According to Diana, pessimism or “a painful sensitivity to evil” may be useful in providing a spur to struggle against wrong, but optimism enables one to endure.

Do you agree with either of them? I think I do. Though I also think one can change or learn new behaviour – so the born pessimist may mellow. Here’s Diana Athill writing about Alice Herz-Sommer:

Born in Prague to Jewish parents who not religious and who knew Mahler and Kafka, she grew up to be a brilliant pianist who studied with a pupil of Liszt’s , and married another very gifted musician. When Hitler invaded Czechoslavakia in 1939 she was living a happy, busy, creative life, which was of course instantly crushed. With her husband and son she was sent to Theresienstadt, the ‘show case’ camp in which more people survived then in other camps because the nazis used it to prove their ‘humanity’ to Red Cross inspectors, although many did die there, and may many thousands more, including Alice’s husband, were dispatched from there to die elsewhere.

Alice Herz-SommerWhen she and her son got back home after the war she found it wasn’t home any more: all of her husband’s family, most of her own, and all her friends had disappeared. She moved to Israel, where she brought up her son, who became a cellist, and it was at his instigation that she came to England twenty years ago. In 2001 she had to ensure his sudden death at the age of sixty-five. She now lives alone in a one-room flat in north London, and might well be expected to be a grimly forlorn old woman.

Instead, the interview was illustrated with three photographs of Alice: a radiant bride in 1931, a radiant young mother just before the war – and a radiant old woman of 103 today. The joyful expression has hardly changed. And when it comes to words, she remembers that the only person who was kind on the day they were taken to the camp was a Nazi neighbour, how thrilled she was by the freedom in Israel, how much she loves England and English people. Even more important to her is how much she still loves playing the piano for three hours every day (‘Work is the best invention… it makes you happy to do something.’ …she illustrates the luck of being born creative.)

And she is enchanted by the beauty of life. It is not religion that inspires her. ‘It begins with this: that we are born half-good and half-bad – everybody, everybody. And there are situations where the good comes out and situations where the bad comes out. This is why people invented religion, I believe.’ So she respects the hope invested in religion although she herself has felt no need for its support. She is carried along by her extraordinary good luck in being born with a nature so firmly tilted towards optimism that in spite of all that she has endured she can still say: ‘Life is beautiful, extremely beutiful. and when you are old you appreciate it more. When you are older you think, you remember, you care and you appreciate. You are thankful for everything. For everything.’ She also says: ‘I know about the bad, but I look only for the good.’

Somewhere Towards The End by Diana AthillAlthough others must be awestruck by her courage, I doubt whether Alice Herz-Sommer herself would claim this positive attitude as a virtue. She compares it with that of her sister, a born pessimist – and ‘born’ is the key word. They were given their dispositions in the same way that one is given the colour of one’s hair. But while a painful sensitivity to evil may be useful during a person’s active years, providing as it sometimes does energy for the necessary, if endless, struggle against mankind’s ‘bad half’, in old age, when one’s chief concern must be how to get oneself through time with the miniumum discomfort to self and inconvenience to others, it can only be a burden.

Unfortunately examples such as Alice’s of how an active mind and a positive outlook are what one needs in old age are not likely to be useful as ‘lessons’, because those able to draw on such qualities will be doing so already, and those who can’t, can’t. Perhaps there are some of us in between those extremes who can be inspired by her to put up a better show then we would otherwise have done.

Here’s Alice playing beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The music starts about 15″ in.

Diana Athill – Somewhere Towards The End



Filed under Music, What I'm Reading

16 responses to “Be pessimistic when you’re young, but optimistic when you’re old

  1. For me the reverse has occurred. I surprise myself in that the part of my brain that produces humor is still active. I used to have the news programs on TV in the background all day long but have become so cynical and disgusted I don’t watch it any more. At least a dozen US soldiers are killed or wounded every day and the reactor mess in Japan is worsening and you barely hear about it unless you do a specific news search. The inattention and lack of dramatic action needed to address the man made ills of the planet makes me think no alternative to pessimism. One mantra that is disheartening is that more and more in my peer age group express that they are glad they will not be around to see the future in which current direction(or lack thereof) is taking humanity.

    • blackwatertown

      To follow or ignore the news – that is the question. Whether better to be an informed citizens railing against the idiocy of the world, or to wrap oneself in blissful oblivion?
      Not an option for me – but I have friends who alternate between the two positions. Every now and then the news becomes too depressing and they go cold turkey for a while.

  2. I am fond of Diana Athill. All her books on my shelf; though not yet the last one you mention above. Whilst I cannot identify with the way she tackled her love life she has that most wonderful and shrewd tool of the sharp eye. The editor’s eye. Maybe one of the reasons I think of Doris Lessing when I think of Diana Athill. There is steel in both of them. Kind steel. No bitterness brought on by advancing years in so many.

    Optimism/Pessimism. Born with? Probably. Though, like metal being forged in fire, no doubt one’s life’s experience may bend us either way. Like a willow does when being whipped into shape by wind always coming from one direction. One of the Polyannas in my life (yes, Californian, the true article) once said to me – helpfully, as I was just about to be swept away by the tide of a set of unfortunate circumstances: “If I were you I’d kill myself.” Indeed.

    Except I didn’t. I hang onto my belief into life (indeed thanking my luck you describe at being alive at all – a one off chance if ever there was one). Nothing but nothing will ever get the better of me. Naturally, it helps to have offspring. A mother cannot afford the luxury of loading her coat pockets with stones and do a Virginia Woolf. My father (an indefatigable spirit) once told me: “The thought of suicide is a comfort in our darkest hours.” He also promised me that should I ever commit suicide he’d not attend my funeral. That that would be immaterial to me since I’d be dead escaped him at the time.

    What I find rather annoying, and you didn’t touch on it, is that pessimists tend to have a better grasp on reality. So a pessimist will save (for a rainy day). The optimist will spend now because the sun is shining and tomorrow is another day. On the upside: An optimist never mopes over an empty larder.

    Big fat subject you raised there, Paul.


    • blackwatertown

      I see the Diana Athill – Doris Lessing parallel. A kind steel. Good way of putting it. I’ve read a lot of Lessing’s African books, but not so much of the sci fi.

      Helpful advice – not – from your friend. “If I were you I’d kill myself.” Yeah, thanks a lot mate.

      Re the taking one’s own life thought. I know others for whom the existence of their children rules this out as an escape. Good for them. As it should be.

      But finally – yes, you’re right, I did skip that whole saving for a rainy day – grasshopper versus the ants question. (Though I suppose a pessimist might not see the point of saving for the future if he or she doubted that there would be one – and an optimist might happily prepare for happy times ahead.)
      What would be annoying is for the optimists to see their blithe hope vindicated by relying on the efforts made by the pessimist. The old saying – hope for the best, but prepare for the worst – seems a bit dour in this context.

  3. Nigel

    Eeyore revelled in gloom, and thus was able to say “I told you so” when his mournful and lugubrious prognostications came about. Perhaps I should try being a pessimist, as it does seem fashionable (I am told “realistic”), and I know those who work effortlessly at this.

    I’m not convinced that pessimism provides “a useful spur to struggle against wrong”, as the pessimist is more likely to accept that wrong is inevitable and incurable, and thus do nothing.

    I just wish that my natural optimism would lead me to believe that the BBC
    might drop “The Archers”, or at least its appallingly jolly Barwick Green signature tune.

    PS: great to see you back, Paul

    • blackwatertown

      Yes – this is complicated. I’ve taken the easier “raise the question” option (as Ursula pointed out) without supplying many answers.
      I work with a professional pessimist. At times there are good reasons for their outlook, but then I remember that they were ever thus. Sometimes they’re best left to their gloom – or maybe I should say – they’re better visited with red cross parcels of uplift only occasionally.

  4. Wish I could play like Alice Herz-Sommer. Look at her long straight fingers! I am almost half her age with bent & crooked fingers and not a note in them. But we all have different talents…. my music is craft work.

  5. I heard a TED talk by Susan Cain and subsequently bought her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. At the end of it I was surprised to find that contrary to my own belief that I am an extrovert, I am more the ambivert .

    Similarly, I think that one cannot be a total pessimist or a total optimist. I found a word for it pessoptimist. Someone who is one or the other depending on the context. One can of course lean more to being one or the other, but one cannot be completely one or the other.

    • blackwatertown

      I have a book called The Pessoptimist, though it’s been sitting unfinished (hardly started in fact) for a while.
      Interesting that you feel one can be so flexible when it comes to optimism/pessimism depending on the circumstances..
      The TED talk looks interesting – ta for the link. I’ll have a look. (BUt now, there are hinges to be fixed.)

  6. I am generally optimistic that I will catch dinner if I hunt and howl long and hard enough! Pessimism would lead to starvation!! 🙂

  7. I’m a cheerful pessimist. I appreciate what I have now because it won’t last forever. Plus I’m often taken by surprise at how well things turn out. I do think humankind is in for a rough ride, and am glad we’ve been as lucky as we have been for so long.

    Athill’s talking about her fern reminds me of my husband (in his late 70’s) replanting his fruit and redwood trees. The first ones burned in the fire two years ago. He’s hoping to get some fruit before we shuffle off, but the redwood is unlikely to get as tall as the 20-year-old one that went up in flames. It’s fun watching things grow.

  8. This is a really sweet post on this notable topic. (Please excuse my poor English as it’s not my 1st tongue.)

  9. Segy

    This is exactly what I think too.
    High quality blog you have here. (Matches my opinions.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s