The Worst Year Ever?

Natasha Moore reflects on the pessimism and apocalypticism of our times, and the value of stubbornly clinging to hope.

People who are strongly pessimistic about the future die earlier, according to new research from the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane. Two years earlier, on average.

I guess if it turns out that your tendency to think things are getting ever bleaker is a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you were right?

We live in a pessimistic moment. Not just here in the long grass of August 2020 – the apocalypticism of our times is a settled inclination. Remember how 2016 was “the worst year ever”? I just reread something I wrote at Christmas 2014, where I catalogued how battered we all felt by the horrors of that year (massacres, race riots, epidemics, the Sydney Siege). How it all felt worse than “usual”.

“It is thought essential to a man who has any knowledge of the world to have an extremely bad opinion of it,” said John Stuart Mill in a debate nearly 200 years ago. “Not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

But obviously things ARE bad. So many things! Surely we’re all pessimists now? Is there any other way for responsible humans to be?

This week Nick Cave called cancel culture “the unhappiest religion in the world” – that it has the “moral certainty and self-righteousness” of bad religion but “shorn even of the capacity for redemption”.

Our apocalypticism, I think, is like that. We’ve got that sense of doom and judgment – but forget to factor in the possibility of grace. The unexpected, undeserved turn to good. If believing our future is bleak can contribute to making it bleaker, those who stubbornly insist on hope may be doing us all a service by that very act.