Ill-Gotten Gain

It’s difficult to be optimistic nowadays. The citizens of the US have not been very responsible stewards of their political system and face the real possibility of losing it. Political turmoil reigns throughout the world, as Britons prepare to exit the European Union and despotic regimes gain influence across the globe. Prices increase, wages go down, those with the most hoard what they have and seek to use their influence to take away the few cushions average people rely upon for sustenance. It isn’t a particularly hopeful era to be alive.

For the most part, I regard myself as a pessimist, rarely surprised by the darker nature of humanity. We are, after all, animals, guided by the same need to survive as every other creature on Earth. True, we have gained higher reasoning capabilities, but what good is a tool one consistently refuses to use? Oftentimes, people know they’re behaving badly or acting counter to their best self-interest, but continue to practice behaviors that are harmful or destructive to themselves and others.

Given such conditions, it makes sense for a person to expect the worst, only occasionally being surprised when the better outcome prevails. The poet, A. E. Housman best summed up this notion in a stanza from his collection entitled A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896:

“Therefore, since the world has still
Much good but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.”

Housman was among the late-Victorian era poets in England, and strongly identified with the Stoic philosophers, who called for an ethical existence, and found it best to face the reality of the world as it is, rather than seeking pleasure as a means of avoiding difficulties. Slow to gain an audience, A Shropshire Lad became popular among younger readers in the years leading up to the First World War, and has remained an enduring classic.

We’d all do well to heed such advice. With all the uncertainty facing us today, a healthy dose of pessimism might just be the remedy for much that troubles us. At the least, it will make us better appreciate when things go well.

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