Thursday, February 07, 2008

Stumbling toward a realistic future

A study conducted last year by the Department of Psychology, New York University, concluded that humans expect the future to be positive even when no evidence supports such expectations. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, neuroscientists found that the brain generates a propensity towards optimism through enhanced activation in the amygdala and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex—the very same regions that show stimulus under depression. It’s that half-full, half-empty bias, hardwired smack into our gray matter.

I suppose I’ve always been a little odd, but I never fell into that mindset. Mine was an outlook both dour and morose, partly due to conditioning (Parker luck = no luck), and partly due to upbringing and genes.

While any creativity I might claim can be traced to my mother, my temperament assuredly comes from my father, which could itself be the result of a lineage of ranchers trying to raise cattle and crops in the cruel West Texas scrublands. Once I was old enough to know what the word meant, I would accuse him of being a pessimist. He wasn’t, he would say in a slightly aggrieved tone leavened by a knowing half-smile and a gleam in his eye. “I’m a realist,” he’d declare, and that was the end of it.

If we had a dictionary in the house I wasn’t aware of it, nor was I the type to delve into its pages to seek out an unfamiliar word. But the term he used seemed simple enough, even for a young boy. Reality was difficult, mean-spirited, treacherous. It poked a stick in your eye. It tripped you on the playground and made bullies single you out of a crowd. Reality was the poker hand we were dealt, and it wasn’t a winning one.

That sort of thinking influenced my perception of reality so deeply, and so starkly, that it now subconsciously poisons my view of the future and directs my actions in ways I barely understand. I’m quite certain that on some subliminal level it launched us out of the mountainous West into the tallgrass prairies of Kansas, whose state motto, “Ad astra per aspera,” translates into “To the stars through difficulty.” The state was manifestly founded and settled not by flighty optimists or negativistic pessimists, but by clear-eyed realists. Unfortunately, the major percentage of its population have devolved from those roots and now espouse the Republican ideal, but this adopted son remains true to the founders’ intents.

To coin a phrase from my friend Max Yoho’s hilarious novel, Tales From Comanche County, we were handed more aspera and not nearly enough astra. And though in the book Uncle Jack handles the surfeit of woes with good humor, my disposition is less sanguine. I grumble and groan and whine, but at heart it’s a method of mentally cushioning myself against a diabolical reality. It is, in effect, a defense mechanism.

Recently, a customer and I discussed optimism at my wife’s shop. She confessed to being upbeat about future events—normal by human standards if the researchers were right—whereas an impending snowstorm dragged me in the opposite direction.

“It’s not going to snow,” she scoffed. We stood by the front door looking out onto a gray world.

“It’s too cold,” she said, but I detected a slight dimming in her sunshiny demeanor.

She asked if I were a half-full or half-empty type of person.

“Three-quarters empty,” I replied. I don’t think she believed me.

She wasn’t gone more than fifteen minutes when it stated snowing. I was grimly, if not perversely, satisfied.

This inclination to expect the worst serves a crucial purpose: when events don’t turn out as hoped, I’m rarely disappointed. And if by some miracle or shift in the space-time continuum they do turn out in my favor, my delight more than compensates for whatever moodiness I might have subjected myself to. It’s a win-win situation.

Notice I used the word “hope.” I remain, after all, merely human.

Take my upcoming camping trip with my codgernaut buddies. We’ll be touring Wyoming and Colorado this spring, some new country, some familiar, and I hope everything goes well. I hope the snow isn’t too deep. I hope it doesn’t rain all the time. I hope the truck doesn’t break down. I hope the irascible old farts don’t leave me stranded somewhere on the Wyoming plains. I hope for many things, but hope has no more credence than wishing on a falling star. If anything, the act of hoping instantly puts us on the defensive. It injects tension and stress into the planning process. Our amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate cortex flare into life, and away we go.

So I hope, yes, even while recognizing the futility of it. I prefer to believe that I’ll be slowly dismembered by a starving grizzly bear, tick-bitten into a lethal case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, or frozen to death on the high plains after an unexpected spring blizzard of record proportions and ferocity. If I’m not, I’ll be unaccountably content.

For the record, I do not call that pessimism. Because those things are possible, they are therefore probable.

Pessimism is believing that the political spectrum in America will be worse after the election. Optimism is believing it will be better. Realism is knowing nothing will change.

This long hard winter has been trying on my disposition, however. I was not sorry to see the end of January, but any attempt at wishing for warmer weather was subsumed under a dark cloud of gloom. Punxsutawney predicted six more weeks of winter, furthering my anxiety. I was about done in by negativity.

One afternoon I was washing dishes when a shadow eclipsed the wan light filtering through the window. In the distance I saw a flock of geese heading my way, their cries electrifying the snow-laden air. It seemed so improbable having them flying north so early in the year. I stepped outside without a jacket and watched them until they were out of sight. Suddenly, against all realistic expectations, the cold wasn’t so cold, nor the winter so long.




1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you don't behave yourself on the trip, we will leave you somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming.