Which of the following statements is true:
The world is pretty horrible. There is war, famine, disease, civil strife, and the discordant clash of ideologies. Violence has been perpetrated against the human body and mind for millennia.
The world is pretty wonderful. There is peace, plenty, wellness, community, and the harmonious discussion of ideas. Progress has been created through the actions of the human body and mind for millennia.
Which did you choose? The first? The second? Both? What does your choice say about your worldview?
It can be difficult for our ever-preoccupied minds to remember that the world has always been simultaneously terrible and beautiful. To paraphrase the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, “it has always been the best of times, it has always been the worst of times.” In the process of living, we can lose sight of this fundamental paradox of the human experience.
When the End is Always Nigh
Unfortunately, this forgetfulness—spearheaded by the loud voice of negativity bias—leads many of us to become armchair cynics that discount the good side of life. Instead of a balance, we can fixate on the negative as the “norm.” We spend time shaking our heads at the “sad state of the world” and despair of someone ever stepping up to fix things.
Take a look at political social media threads, and you’ll often see a seemingly endless parade of pessimistic thinking. Online comment sections seem purpose-built for giving voice to our inner anxieties. Between social media exhaustion and the negative focus of the 24-hour news cycle, it’s no wonder so many of us feel soul-sick and world-weary. Also, don’t forget the predations of professional prophets of doom like Alex Jones, who reap the profits of doom by keeping their followers in a constant state of fear.
Yes, it’s prudent to be cautious as we navigate the world. But it’s another thing entirely to let ourselves become infected with negativity. It’s like we’ve all become the stereotypical doomsayer depicted in movies. If we’re all running around wild-eyed carrying signs that read “The End is Nigh,” who is left to see the best in us and the world?
Negativity bias is part of the reason often place so much hope on external forces (especially politicians) that promise to make things “better.” We convince ourselves we’re too insignificant or powerless to change the world around us. We so desperately want someone to improve circumstances that we invest our hopes, and sometimes even our identities, into whatever belief system we think will preserve our way of life.
Ultimately, the tragedy is too many of us don’t believe we ourselves can be the saviors we seek.
Heroism and the Optimism/Pessimism Spectrum
Taking all the above into consideration, this is why I’m so committed to spreading the word about mythic heroism as a framework for life: the reason we have always created heroic stories is to serve as a reminder of our self-efficacy, and our ability to determine how we show up and take action in the world. I see the heroic mindset as being an antidote to fear and learned helplessness.
With our ever-growing knowledge regarding the biology of human behavior, heroic mythology is transforming into heroism science. At the most basic level, to have a heroic mindset is to embrace both the negative and the positive aspects of humanity, and walk the “middle path” between optimistic and pessimistic thinking. Like so many other aspects of human behavior, optimism and pessimism exist on a spectrum rather than an either/or choice.
We have enough prophets who only predict our doom with their self-fulfilling prophecies. We need those brave enough to walk in both the light and the darkness, who can keep their minds truly open and ready to deal holistically with the challenges of life. So, how’s your balance?
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