Scene In Passing: Ode to optimism, pessimism and skepticism

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Life brings us speed bumps or potholes on generally smooth roads.

To employ a different metaphor, your scrivener doesn’t ponder whether the glass is half full or empty. Mostly it’s full to the brim or, as my wife enjoys pointing out, the contents were guzzled. It needs refilling or washing.

Life basically is a dram of nectar. My glass holds a taste of abundance; here’s hoping you see life similarly. Those in the “life is broken, let me fix it” crowd taste sour grapes, spoiled wine, often of their own making.

“A fanatic,” said Sir Winston Churchill, “is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

Churchill, writer and British leader, viewed such people as bores at best, problems at worst. Both those types exist at all levels — local, state national, international — and the ones hailing from really rigid ranks kill people.

Underlying the views of negative naysayers and outright fanatics is something Baltimore’s H.L. Mencken, a contemporary of Churchill and another writer admired here, correctly noted yet undermined in another broad stroke quip.

“A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin,” wrote Mencken. He went too far, however, asserting in another and hyperbolic context: “The cynics are right nine times out of 10.”

There is a better way than cynicism in which to cope with demagogues, of which there are plenty now as always, or fanatics — ditto for now and back then — and also to deal with cynics who see life as a black hole.

It’s best to apply rational yet optimistic skepticism in every interaction. You see, this Scene In Passing observer isn’t gulping pink Kool-Aid of the upbeat, the cheerleaders among us, or the purveyors of pre-destination palaver. The future unfolds, isn’t yet discernible, and Kumbaya is a song rather than a strategy. Neither optimists nor pessimists can be entirely accurate soothsayers.

Informed, smart questions are the road to unmasking the mediocre and the phoney among us. Then whatever is uncovered should be shared, along with pertinent insights if facts warrant them. Yet dealing with speed bumps, potholes and the ephemeral state of contents in a glass can prove mildly risky business precisely because none of us, including me, knows the future.

“Any man who afflicts the world with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood,” as Mencken, the aforementioned Baltimore sage, understood.

Misunderstandings aside, this scrivener isn’t likely to succumb to lobbying that prods him to see the world through a wholly pessimistic lens fueled by assumptions regarding everyone else’s motives.

Colin Wilson, a Brit like Churchill and another writer beloved here, devoted voluminous published musings to his generally upbeat view though it flew in the face of most existentialists like Sartre and Camus.

“The individual must, with deliberate intellectual forethought, place himself upon an optimistic foundation: take it as an absolute presupposition that life is good,” Wilson wrote in “Existentially Speaking,” a book of essays on his counter-intuitive approach to a normally downer philosophy.

“And this is not some metaphysical assumption or an attempt to ‘sell yourself the confidence trick,’” Wilson continued. “It is simply a recognition that most of our gloom and defeat is self-induced, based on obsessive worry about trivial problems.”

John Barrette covers Carson City government and business. He can be reached at


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