A pessimist psychology

by Arran James

Reading Thomas Ligotti I came across the existential psychological approach called Terror Management Theory. It immediately appeals to me and echoes much of the content of my thinking, some of which appears on this blog. TMT seems to form the pessimist’s contribution to the psych-disciplines, a voice that is often excluded from those disciplines. Whilst the theorists state that fear of death (thanatophobia) is the our prime motivation in living I would prefer to think in a more modest tenor of a kind of ‘thanatamnesiac’ project. I’ve written about this elsewhere on this blog as the basis of human civilisation (without previously having felt the need to coin an arsey word for it). Here I’ll simply quote the opening of an essay by Jeff Greenburg:

Humans live by existential illusions. These fictions about existence help us cope with the

Big Five existential concerns: death, identity, meaning, social connections, and freedom

(Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Koole, & Solomon, 2010). They allow us to feel like we are

significant and enduring beings in a meaningful world, even though science tells us we are just

material organisms with a brief lifespan in an indifferent universe and members of a species that

sooner or later will likely become extinct. Death is inevitable. Our identities and meanings are

cultural constructions that don’t amount to a hill of beans in the context of billions of years of

time and the vast enormity of space. Our most cherished relationships are inherently limited; we

can never know the inner life of another person or reliably expect someone else to put our

interests above their own. We strive for freedom while we are all imprisoned by our cultural

upbringing and largely dependent on following others’ rules for survival. If we have too much

freedom, it causes us anxiety and stress and we often don’t know what to do with it.

Lately I have been feeling very good. I’ve met a wonderful, interesting and beautiful woman. I’ve been really enjoying spending time getting to know her and her son. I state this here simply to emphasise that there is no necessity in thinking that pessimism is coextensive with the negative passions (depression or sorrow being the most common association). Pessimism as an intellectual orientation or tenor ought not be conflated with a deflated mood. It seems to me, right now, that it is even possible to be a happy pessimist.

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