On Pessimism / Cynicism

posted in: Core Principles | 0

On the surface, pessimism might seem freeing.

If you assume that things will always turn out badly or not all all, then you are off the hook. You might think that you never have to try because things won’t work out anyway. You might believe that you won’t have to face your fears and grow because that can only lead to corruption and suffering.

“Why bother with all of that?” you might say.

You can eat cookies and play video games (as an addiction, not as the casual “dumb time” which humans need) and ignore the suffering of the world, numbing your own suffering out with booze or medication if you have to (not implying that some people don’t need medication; some certainly do, most don’t).

Digging below the surface, such a cynical approach turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Human brains work in a very funny way. There is a “verification-seeking” mechanism in your brains that can either be extremely helpful or a complete nightmare.

In one of Robert Anton Wilson’s brilliant (note: if you decide to read RAW, be warned that he sometimes used incendiary language to snap readers to attention; it might offend modern audiences in places) books (was it Quantum Psychology? I’ll have to ask Bob to check for me), he calls this mechanism “the Thinker and the Prover”. The basic way it works is this:

You believe something to be true. Your Thinker conceptualizes it, ponders it, and often identifies with that belief. Your Prover then, mostly unconsciously and quite constantly, seeks out, absorbs, and stores “proof” that the belief is true. The Thinker then adjusts the belief slightly to favor this “proof”. The “evidence” gradually piles up and a belief becomes ingrained, self-reinforcing, and tough to change. Once a belief is ingrained, a person will act on this belief (no matter how self-destructive it might be) as though it were inviolably true, ignore all evidence to the contrary, and even grow angry and combative when debated (even if the evidence they are presented with proves their belief to be stupidly or even dangerously false and flawed). If presented with evidence or confronted often enough, the “Prover” will attempt to make sense of this negative feedback from the world and might resort to racism, sexism, conspiracy theories, religious cults, and worse to keep their beliefs “safe” from “negative influences”.

We can see this playing out all over the world every day and almost all humans have some version of this running at all times.

For example, it is extremely obvious that taking care of your planet will help you lead a better life (all humans will benefit in nearly limitless ways) and failing to do so will eventually lead to the extinction of humanity and quite possibly the extinction of all living species on Earth. Most people have an unconscious belief that either this “isn’t a big deal”, “will take care of itself”, or “is a problem I can’t do anything about”. Logically, these excuses are clearly and obviously false, but will persist, no matter how much evidence is offered to counter them. In fact, you may feel somewhat uncomfortable reading what I just wrote here. Do you feel conflicted or uncomfortable? Trying to find a way to comfort your unconscious decision to do little or nothing about the ecological catastrophe playing out in your back yard? That’s your Prover, refusing to accept the obvious so that your self-destructive beliefs can persist. If you are one of the few who are doing something, what are you feeling about what I wrote here?

I’ll give you another example: The scientific consensus is (quite accurately) that drinking alcohol in any amount is bad for both your physical and mental health, your health is important to your well-being and quality of life, your mental health affects the well-being of everyone you come into contact with, and most alcohol drinkers can quit at any time without dangerous withdrawal. Almost everyone has heard this information. Outside of the Muslim world, a majority of people have rejected the evidence I just presented and drink alcohol anyway. Most of the people reading this (you?) might feel uncomfortable reading it. Did it make you feel angry? That’s your Prover doing everything it can to keep you drinking alcohol in order to “support” your unconscious and irrational beliefs about alcohol. If you don’t drink, how did this make you feel?

I can give more examples, but I will pause here. I don’t want you to stop reading. 😹 But I do want to mention that I’m not saying that you should do something about the environment. What if the horrors of ecological collapse are exactly what you need for your growth (I hope not, but it’s possible). I’m not saying you shouldn’t drink alcohol. There are probably many uses that are helpful. It’s impossible to know everything. My point, in case it isn’t clear, is that simply showing proof that our beliefs might be inaccurate is enough to inspire profound resistance. This resistance is important to examine. More important than the “facts”, even.

I’m not trying to make you feel angry or uncomfortable. And, believe it or not, I’m not trying to convince you of anything. I just want to illustrate just how unconscious and insidious this brain mechanism can be (and how it contributes to some huge problems). I think it’s important to really understand the challenge you face in freeing yourself, waking up, and living consciously: “ideals” that anyone can “live up to”, but almost everyone believes for some reason that they can’t.

Interesting, no?

More dangerously…

The Prover, if it fails to gather evidence for a belief that the Thinker is in love with or ponders often enough, will sometimes manufacture evidence to “prove” the Thinker right. Sometimes this can take the form of psychotic breaks, hallucinations, paranoia, and other “mental issues”. Sometimes these mental issues will offer up enough pressure to force the Thinker to change its mind. But it can just as easily lead to serious mental illness.

More dangerously than that, the Prover can unconsciously manipulate a person into dangerous situations where they are practically forced to persist in the dangerous belief. There are many example of this in the real world, and almost everyone has at least one of these experiences, but they are scary to talk about, so I will stop here.

I will talk much more about the Thinker/Prover mechanism of the human mind in a future post; let’s get back to pessimism/cynicism.

The self-fulfilling prophecy.

When you practice pessimism (“things won’t work out”, “never work out for me”, “always go wrong”, etc) or cynicism (“everyone is out for themselves”, “the world is a mess”, “life is hopeless”, etc), your brain seeks out evidence to support your belief. Your Thinker will try to integrate them into your life and your Prover will gather evidence to support these ideas until you believe them to be incontrovertible. At that point, like magic, things will work out less and less, you will “see” so much terrible behavior everywhere, and life will be frightening and hopeless. Wonderful miracles will happen all around you all the time and you won’t notice them.

You’ll be stuck in a dark spiral from which you can’t fathom an escape. Almost everyone is locked into a dark spiral of one form or another. You probably have a few of them yourself, likely completely invisible to you, unless your dark spiral has grown heavy and despair has taken over.

With your Thinker/Prover continuing on its own, if you’re “lucky”, you’ll have a drastic life-changing event that will break you from the spiral; but, because you have made reinforcing these beliefs a lifestyle (series of interlocking habits, saturating everything you do and identify with), the dark spiral can return, even after you ride a wave of happiness following the “breakthrough”.

Nasty business.

But there is good news!

You can make consciously identifying your beliefs a habit.

You can also make correcting your beliefs and giving the Prover more useful work to do into a habit as well.

Essentially, by consciously claiming the unconscious work that the Thinker and Prover are doing, you can steer your life in a new, healthy, happy direction (and gradually make your way into “profound joy” territory).

There are quite a few steps to take in reclaiming your life. One of the most helpful steps is recognizing your beliefs as fluid choices rather than strict rules to live by. Every belief can (and I would say should) be subject to change at a moment’s notice.

It might be better if we refused to hold beliefs at all and instead lived life as it is right now without resistance, but since the brain is used to doing so much work unconsciously, it might be a wise strategy to give it better work to do and better ways of working at first, until you have made conscious living the default norm (this can take quite a lot of time and attention, so there’s no need to rush).

There is so much more I can say on this topic, but this post feels long. I will make another post about this topic soon!