A feeling of unhappiness persists. The pandemic is no longer haunting the headlines. But people remain anxious. According to a recent CNN poll, “only 14% of Americans say they are either excited (4%) or optimistic (10%) about the way things are going in the country, with 65% saying they are worried and 21% saying they are fear.
There is a lot of bad news here and abroad. Something to make you want to go back to bed and hide under the covers. But scrolling the doom in the dark won’t solve these problems. The solution is to get up and get to work.
It helps to know that gloom and unhappiness are common. The news has always been bad. Good news rarely makes the headlines. And the poems rarely focus on “happily ever after”.
Greek tragedy dwells in darkness. Shakespeare too. Modern art takes this to another level. TS Eliot published his poem, “The Waste Land”, a century ago in 1922, when the world was turned upside down by the Great War and the Spanish Flu. He described a world in fragments and ruins, shaken by thunder and scorched by fire.
Eliot invoked Buddhism in his lament. The Buddha said: “everything is on fire”. You see, the saying catastrophic is old and widespread. The Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes says, “all is meaningless”.
One solution is to hope for a savior. Ecclesiastes is not the whole Bible. There is comfort in hope. But another solution is moving from hope to action. This is typical of the American philosophy known as “pragmatism”.
Pragmatism thinks that human ingenuity can make things better. Instead of wallowing in despair or passively waiting for a savior, the pragmatic activates. The roots of this idea are found in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s plea for self-reliance. It spans through the work of William James and John Dewey. We find traces of it in Barack Obama’s idea of “the audacity of hope”.
Rather than lamenting the ruins and fragments that surround us, pragmatists encourage us to pick up the pieces and put them back together. The key is creativity, experimentation and exploration.
William James admired the active energy of a “sound mind”. It is the opposite of what he called a “sick soul”. He explained that sick souls magnify the evils of the world. James would probably consider our habit of scrolling doom a symptom of soul sickness.
In 1895, James wrote: “Do not be afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact. This affirmative spirit is sane. If you don’t like the world, fix it. Of course, your actions are finite and limited. But the effect is cumulative. By adding your twig to the fire, you keep the light glowing. And by doing something other than complaining, you model the solution.
Passivity breeds evil of the soul. When we are passive, body and mind atrophy. But human beings thrive on challenge, resistance, and hard work. Creative activity can manifest as political activism. It could also become poetry and art.
George Santayana, one of Eliot’s professors at Harvard, where pragmatism was all the rage, once said that “the so-called real world is also a work of the imagination”. This applies to politics and art. The world we imagine becomes real as we work to make it so.
Pragmatism embraces change and risk. We cannot predict where things will end. But it will be interesting to find out. Rather than pining for a past golden age, the pragmatist looks to the poem that is the future. This approach is curious to discover what human beings will create next. He hopes that in the long run, common sense will prevail.
Of course, not all changes are good. And sometimes “we the people” make mistakes. But rather than lament that fact and retreat to the covers, the pragmatist sees mistakes as opportunities for greater and better creative activity.
The pragmatic imagination sees the world as open and malleable. As James says, the world is “waiting to receive its finishing touch from us”. We can improve the world. The future is an opportunity and a responsibility. If you don’t like the way things are, imagine something new and do something about it.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of the Fresno State Center for Ethics. Contact him: [email protected]