Friday, November 11, 2005

[Essay] Since When Did I Become An Optimist?

You know the person who’s present at public gatherings, yet does nothing but sulk in a corner? And when you attempt a conversation, you sense the lack of enthusiasm, and the person seems to be more concerned about his or her own personal problems rather than the topic at hand? Perhaps it’s so emotionally painful to talk to such a person because you feel your spirit seep out of you, as if the he or she was slowly leeching at your life. While sycophants prey on the popularity of others, this one does the reverse: no matter how humble you are or how optimistic you’re feeling, you simply get drained.

Not so long ago, I was one of these people. When people speak of auras, mine was several meters long. Whenever I’d see people, depression would kick in because of the loneliness I felt. This, in turn, would drive other people away, causing me more grief. Thus it was a self-perpetuating cycle, an ouroboros of self-pity. Any rational person would see how illogical this behavior was, yet emotion never subscribed to reason.

What I noticed during this time is that, well, negative emotions are contagious. When you feel sad, other people can’t help but feel sad as well, unless they distance themselves from you. As much as other people determine who we are, we also determine who we are, and how other people treat us. If you want to be treated with pity, then feel pitiful for yourself. Perhaps a tactic some beggars use in this poverty-stricken country of ours is to look and feel sorry for themselves, as if fate has been cruel to them and all that’s left are the scraps the benevolent are willing to give. With such an attitude, you can’t help but feel sorry for them (being the “benevolent” person that you are), and they in turn won’t change their lifestyle short of divine intervention.

Of course it’s also strange to see a happy, well-off man in constant company of such a pessimistic fellow. The old adage birds of the same feather flock together ring true more than opposites attract, despite what soap operas on TV might profess. Perhaps a better example would be who do you go to when you want to mad or angry at someone? Do you hang out with optimistic people, who might make your concerns seem trivial, or unjustified? Or would you rather be with similarly angst-filled men and women who can relate with your rage, and provide input of their own? Angry people in the company of other angry people make a very angry crowd.

This basic concept is what makes mob rule prevalent. You have angry people, agitated people, and apathetic men and women. In a span of a few minutes and after some bolstering on the part of the angry people, the entire group soon becomes, well, a mob. Even the apathetic ones are rallied into the cause of the wrathful, because emotions are contagious.

Yet what’s sad is that the opposite is not always true. While people do congregate to bolster themselves in positive ways, have you ever had a scenario where someone you now fared significantly better than you? It could be a relative, a good friend, or an acquaintance. While we feel happy for them, a tiny spark in us feels selfish. It’s called jealousy. We ask ourselves why it didn’t happen to us, especially if it’s a peer we’re more or less familiar with. Celebrities, politicians, and heroes are someone we elevate ahead of us. When a local athlete wins an international competition, we feel happy for him. When a friend becomes that athlete and gains the acclaim of our fellow friends, it might be fair to say that we feel both happiness and jealousy. The problem with the latter is that if we repress it too much, it spreads like a malignant poison. It’s not evident at first but later on, happiness makes way for jealousy. We become spiteful of the positive emotions around us; in other words, we become a cynic.

But jealousy is not the only emotion that keeps us apart. Do you have friends whom you can’t really relate to? I mean one girl I know is full of bubbly cheer. She always smiles, is often positive, and speaks in a high, perky voice. While acquainting with her is fine, the moment I rant, it’s simply brushed off by all her enthusiasm. And what I mean by brushed off, you explain your case yet you don’t get the reaction you expect. Human beings really want yes-men as their companions. Or at least someone who can relate to your struggles, even if they won’t always agree with your opinions. In my previously mentioned scenario, she completely circumvents that because our emotional thresholds are too far apart (she’s too far on the positive side, while I’m too far on the negative). So expectations can also keep people apart, in the long term if not in the short term.

So where does that leave us? Are human beings destined to live our the rest of their existence lonely and full of negative cheer? One fact many people forget is free will. As much as external factors can affect how we feel, we can also choose what to feel. Now some people might point out that emotion isn’t something we control: if someone scratches you, you feel pain. It’s not a choice of whether you feel pain or not. Well, let me clarify. Emotion probably has two levels: an immediate effect and a lasting effect. If a mosquito bites you, the first sensation you feel is pain. That’s what I call the immediate effect. You feel the pain. What happens next is the lasting effect, and is perhaps what we can control. I mean one common reaction we can do is bitch about the insect bite, and talk about it all day. How it ruins our skin, how it makes our arm itch, how it was unlucky of us. That, however, is merely one perspective we can take. Other people can move on, and simply view it as a daily fact. That’s a more neutrally-centered emotion. Or some people can even see it as a blessing, that they’re still capable of feeling and staying in touch with the world (and a rare few will probably be happy that they were able to feed an insect). Now those three emotions are something we can control. Granted, our “default” emotion might be different (the first time I get bitten, my instinct might be to rant about it), but we can always alter our perspectives. I mean I still get bitten by mosquitoes, but instead of complaining about it all day, I usually do something more practical, such as swatting it or rubbing my skin with alcohol (mosquito-repellants aren’t really for me). Did I feel pain when I was bitten? Slightly. Did I let it affect my whole day? No. Which goes to show how self-control, and perhaps optimism can carry you to another level.

But wait, what does that have to do with our topic? Well, as much as negative emotions are contagious, a strong will can negate the pessimistic feelings other people are exuding. Just because I’m with a grumpy old man doesn’t mean I have to be grumpy too. Granted, that’s not always the case. Even the most stalwart of human beings might give in to mob rule or peer pressure, given the proper circumstance. In such a case, what’s there left to do? The answer is to simply avoid such situations. I mean if you’re prone to drunkenness, don’t go to a bar, even if you tell yourself at the start you won’t drink. Or in the case of short-tempered friends and you want to keep your cool, don’t hang around with them too much (note that I said too much… ostracizing friends isn’t exactly the best recommendation you know).

As for my aura of despair and depression, well, I do follow my own advice. Which is probably why there’s always a hint of hope in whatever I write. As far as emotions go though, be wary of them. Because they’re infectious, and you’re not just affecting yourself, but other people as well.