The Human Condition:

On Going Negative – June 10, 2012

Over the years, various book editors, business communicators, and writing group members have noted and commented on my tendency to define situations and objects with a negative slant: “It wasn’t your typical Saturday … This wasn’t the treatment James was accustomed to … It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile.” They find this sort of negativity objectionable, defeatist, pessimistic. They want me to be positive, upbeat. State what the thing is, rather than what it isn’t. And I try—I do try.

But for me, to speak and write only in positive terms is working rhetorically with only half a palette. White without any black or grays remains undefined. Light without the shadows it creates would be indiscernible. To say what a thing is tells only half the story; the fuller description also includes what it is not, chooses not to be, or will never be. This usage identifies the negative as a form of context.

And it’s not that I am actually defeatist or negative in my outlook … (There it is again!) I generally have a very positive outlook, both politically and economically. I believe that the world and the human situation are generally improving, despite some current and perhaps enduring setbacks. More people in places that we used to think of as economically backward when I was a child, places with overcrowding, mass starvation, and hopelessness, places like India and China, are actually doing much better and taking care of some, if not all, of their people. Technology is providing the human race with better crops, more energy, more accessible communication, more opportunities for individuals to learn and know and express themselves. The world is a richer place than when I was growing up.1 We will still see local and temporary failures, of course, like the current money bind in Europe and the United States, but the long-term trend is upward. So I am not a pessimist.

There it is again. And in a strange kind of double negative. If “pessimist” is something negative, then I am not something negative. Double negatives are like the mathematical trick of adding two negative numbers and creating a positive. Why not just say “I am an optimist”?

Well, because sometimes that goes too far. To call someone an optimist is sometimes to imply a failure of judgment. The word “cockeyed” fits too well with the word.2 Rose-colored glasses. Worn by Pollyanna, the Glad girl. Candide wandering in this best of all possible worlds. Ain’t me, babe.

I know that two paragraphs back I talked about the world improving. But it’s a sliding scale, two steps forward, one step back. Hate and malice, envy and greed, superstition and fear are all still with us. The wealth of information available on the internet has also spawned the biggest, fastest rumor mill the world has ever seen. We keep blowing economic bubbles and then wondering what has happened when they burst.3 I’m not an optimist, nor a pessimist. I am—to put it positively—a neutral realist who gathers facts and checks off boxes.

My real faith, the source of my optimism, is that western civilization has survived the fall of Rome, the Mongol invasion, the Black Death, and the Spanish Inquisition. Eastern cultures survived the eruption of Krakatoa and the Japanese Tsunami. Not everyone survives on these occasions, but life goes on. And we still live on a little green planet with the amount and hue of sunlight for which our eyes were adapted, atmospheric pressure for which our lungs were adapted, gravity for which our feet were adapted, and day-to-day problems for which our brains and hands were adapted. Things will get better—but sometimes slowly.

And note that I’m still talking negatively—invasions, death, and eruptions—rather than dwelling on the positives like invention of the printing press, the glories of Renaissance art, the human flowering of the Enlightenment. Why is that? Because, at heart, I am also a contrarian.

Ornery me. When the crowd is cheering, I tend to go quiet. When everyone is rushing for the exits, I sit down. When everyone else is buying a new house or refinancing the old one to dip into that “equity line of credit,”4 I hang back. The road that’s well traveled is likely to be crowded, and I instinctively avoid crowds.

I miss a lot of opportunities that way. I also get strange looks from some of my friends. But I haven’t fallen for too many hoaxes, or gone broke from buying a tulip bulb. When everyone is cheering on house prices that exceed the traditional “three times your annual earnings,” I start asking what’s wrong with this picture. That sort of dispassionate squint can be useful for a survivor, or a novelist.

For me, that bit of negativity is not Eeyore’s depressed and perpetual groan. Instead, it’s an element of doubt. Is the world only what we can see and touch? Is the situation only what we think it is? In a political and economic environment full of promoters and marketers, partisans and pushers, each wanting to channel the crowd through this door or that, a tendency to doubt, to look deeper, to seek hidden motives and agendas, is again useful, both for a novelist and a survivor.

And finally, I believe in the basic mystery of life. The Buddhists tell us that the world is illusion. What we can see and hear, touch and smell, is only a shadow in the mind, interpreted from the evidence of our six senses.5 Further, our theories about what we can see and touch, whether based on our imaginations or our mathematics, arise from someplace even deeper in the mind, not from any awareness that’s closer to the external world.

Our brains are mechanisms of layered complexity. Out of the complications of our personal reactions to our perceived experiences of cause and effect, we build up a world view and a personality that exists within it. Layer on layer until we come to believe that the “I” which inhabits this chemical pot and electric box actually exists.

But what’s “out there,” reflected in the photons that are impacting our retinas and the electromagnetic pressures that are pushing against our fingertips, is still a mystery. It’s a mystery we dance with every day of our lives.

So the ultimate message of my doubting, negative side is really a perpetual reminder: “The world is not what you think.”

1. Consider information and entertainment. When I was in school, if you wanted to find things out, you had to go to the library, maneuver through the Dewey Decimal System, locate the book or magazine on the shelves, take it out, use the table of contents or index, and then read the information from the printed page—which might not have been updated in the past ten or twenty years. If you wanted to hear music, there were records and the radio, rather than having to locate a performance and buy tickets at the concert hall, as my great-grandparents would have had to do. But if you wanted to see a movie, you still had to show up in a certain place, on time, and buy a ticket. Oh, and you could see it on television—three years later, at whatever time the network happened to show it, in black-and-white, and cut up with commercials. Today, all of that information, all that music, all those movies and even the television shows themselves are available through a computer and, more and more, on a telephone that talks without wires. Just amazing!

2. Thank you, Rodgers and Hammerstein.

3. Do you want to see a silver lining in all this? Well, what is a bubble? From the Dutch tulip mania, to the Tech Bubble of the late 1990s, to the Housing Bubble of 2008, a common pattern emerges. When you think about it, people with too much money—or access to too much credit, which only means that someone else has the money to loan—are chasing too few, and so overly valued, items in a particular class. Flower bulbs, internet startup companies, desirable houses—people with ready money are now always chasing something.
     When you consider that the basis of all human economics for 100,000 years, until we settled down in river valleys and started growing things, was want and hunger, that’s a pretty positive development. Hunter-gatherers might gorge themselves when the game was plentiful and the berries ripe, but for the rest of the time life consisted walking from one bush to the next looking for something to eat.
     Consider that even in the river valleys, the good times were when the granaries were full, the bad times when the harvest failed and they went empty. Today, our downturns, our recessions and even our depressions, are not due to crop failure or declining production. Instead, we go into economically negative territory when demand fails, when the warehouses fill with unsold goods, and when productive factories must go on short work weeks. That’s 5,000 years of economics turned on its head. With the productive capacity that ever-rising levels of technology bestow, we’ve entered a whole new world, a new kind of economics.

4. Which my mother would have called what it is: a second mortgage. For my folks, those words were “the worst thing you ever heard.” And yes, I’ve taken on debt in my life. I’ve bought a few too many toys on my credit cards and then had to delay other gratifications while I paid down the balance. But I never put my living situation at risk. That is a very bright, sharp line.

5. Okay, what’s the sixth sense? We all know the traditional five: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell—with the last two, while interpreted through different organs, actually partaking of the same chemistries. But within our ear, and having nothing to do with detecting sounds, is a mechanism for directly perceiving gravity. Our sense of balance, which is separate from and sometimes in conflict with the evidence of our eyes, is the sixth human sense.