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The Agony Of Ecstasy

With all this good news, what's a pessimist to do?

By James Collins

Time magazine

(TIME, May 19) -- It has always seemed to me that if you want to be taken seriously, you can't be too optimistic. People who see how bad things are get respect. When they make a triangle with their fingertips and thumbs and say, "What I find deeply troubling..." or "I fear I take a less sanguine view..." everybody listens, brows furrowed. Go around acting as if everything's wonderful, though, and you'll be dismissed as an ignorant lightweight, shallow and simpleminded. "What, me worry?" was Alfred E. Neuman's motto, not Thomas Mann's.

Mindful of this prejudice, I've spent a lifetime identifying this or that disturbing factor that others ignore. Now, however, I face a real problem: I can't find any of those factors. Each morning the paper brings such encouraging news about inflation or crime or unemployment that I almost expect to see the headline GOOD PEOPLE REWARDED; EVIL ONES TO SUFFER. The worry monger in me finds no satisfaction in the international pages either. The democracy kudzu spreads relentlessly, and while there are troubles, none compares with the risk of imminent global incineration. Then: the Cuban missile crisis. Now: the Caribbean summit. After so carefully developing the habit of pessimism, is it any wonder I feel bereft?

It's all very hard to get used to. As an undergraduate in the late 1970s, it was easy to cultivate foreboding: democracy seemed washed up; both inflation and unemployment were out of control; warheads were pointed our way; the '60s had left a residue of chaos without idealism (you know--Altamont). The '80s brought fresh stuff to find deeply troubling: recession, Star Wars weapons, Reaganomics, leveraged-buyout layoffs, greed, soaring deficits, Michael Dukakis as a potential President. Now? Well, let's see: there's the failure of the budget deal to adequately address middle-class entitlements. A nontrivial problem, but not a crisis like the wars and riots and racism and economic calamities that Americans have faced in the past. As a skilled worrier, I fear my craft has become obsolete, like whaling or vaudeville.

Of course, a clever person in this situation can find one thing to complain about: things have gotten too placid, too settled, too nice. Aren't we really happiest in times of great conflict and danger? The novelist Walker Percy raised this point in his essays years ago. "Why," he asked, "is [a] man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?" Percy discussed the estrangement of the commuter passing through New Jersey: his needs are entirely satisfied, but he feels bad. "The Bomb would seem to be sufficient reason for anxiety," Percy wrote, "yet it happens the reverse is true ...When everything else fails, we may always turn to...the old authentic thrill of the Bomb and the Coming of the Last Days. The real anxiety question, the question no one asks because no one wants to, is the reverse: What if the Bomb should not fall? What then?"

What then? Well, the Bomb didn't fall, and we seem to have survived that too. Apparently, even having nothing to worry about is nothing to worry about. We haven't created paradise, of course. Too many people are poor, thwarted, sick. Still, it's hard to think of a time when conditions have ripened so satisfactorily. For people like me there remains only this consolation: it can never last.

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