The Unclaimed Territory
AT THE COR E of the phenomenon of pessimism is another phenomenon that of helplessness. Helplessness is the state of affairs in which nothing you choose to do affects what happens to you. For example, if I promise you one thousand dollars to turn to, you Wii probably choose to do so, and you wiII succeed. If, however, I promise you one thousand dollars to contract the pupil of your eye, using only wiIIpower, you may choose to do it, but that won’t matter. You are helpless to contract your pupil. Page turning is under your voluntary control; the muscles that change your pupillary size are not.
Life begins in utter helplessness. The newborn infant cannot help himself, for him· is almost entirely a creature of reflex. When he cries, his mother comes, although this does not mean that he controls his mother’s coming. His crying is a mere reflex reaction to pain and discomfort.
WITH THESE FREEDOMS have come perils. For the age of the self is also the age of that phenomenon so closely linked to pessimism: depression, the ultimate expression of pessimism? We are in the middle of an epidemic of depression, one with consequences that, through suicide, takes as many lives as the AIDS epidemic and is more widespread. Severe depression is ten times more prevalent today than it was fifty years ago. It assaults women twice as often as men, and it now strikes a full decade earlier in life on average than it did a generation ago.
THE TRADITIONAL VIEW of achievement, like the traditional view of depression, needs overhauling. Our workplaces and our schools operate on the conventional assumption that success results from a combination of talent and desire. When failure occurs, it is because either talent or desire is missing. But failure also can occur when talent and desire are present in abundance but optimism is missing.
From nursery school on, there are frequent tests of talent IQ tests, SA Ts, MCATs, and so on-tests that many parents consider so important to their child’s future that they pay to have the child instructed in the art of taking them. At every stage in life, these tests allegedly separate the competent from the less competent. While talent has proved to be roughly measurable, it has turned out to be depressingly hard to increase. Cram courses for SATs can raise pupils’ scores somewhat; they leave untouched the true level of talent.
THE TRADITIONAL VIEW of health turns out to be as flawed as the traditional view of talent. Optimism and pessimism affect health itself, almost as clearly as do physical factors.
Most people assume that physical health is a wholly physical matter and that it is determined by constitution, health habits, and how completely you avoid germs. They believe that for the most part your constitution is the result of your genes, although you can enhance it with the right eating habits, with vigorous exercise, by avoiding cholesterol of the bad sort, by having regular checkups, by wearing seat belts. You can avoid illness by inoculation, rigorous hygiene, safe sex, staying away from people with colds, brushing your teeth three times a day, and the like. When someone’s health fails, therefore, it must be because he had a weak constitution, had poor health habits, or came across too many germs.
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If the tests indicate that you are a pessimist, that’s not the end of the matter. Unlike many personal qualities, basic pessimism is not fixed and unchangeable. You can learn a set of skills that free you from the tyranny of pessimism and allow you to use optimism when you choose. These skills are not mindlessly simple to acquire, but they can be mastered. The first step is to discover the word in your heart. Not coincidentally, that is also the initial step toward a new understanding of the human mind, one that has unfolded over the past quarter-century-an understanding of how an individual’s sense of personal control determines his file.