Be pessimistic while you’re young, but optimistic when you get older. Do you agree?
To boil it down further: Be thankful, be appreciative, be optimistic. (Don’t worry too much about being pessimistic at all.)
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.
When 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.’
Although 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