Whenever I call myself an optimistic fatalist, people laught. It does sound rather absurd, but let me explain.
Here’s how one dictionary defines fatalism: “a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them.” It’s a belief that certain things, usually bad, are inevitable.
Here’s how one dictionary defines optimism: “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome.”
How do these two things mesh? Simple. It may turn out to be true that certain things, in hindsight, probably could not have failed to turn out the way they did. It may feel as if once certain conditions were met, or one path set out upon, the rest could have been predicted like whatever simile you like—clockwork, or falling dominoes, or a runaway train.
Maybe. And then again, maybe not. Even as dire situations unfold, circumstances change, new factors get added in, certain factors are taken away. We find a new source of empowerment. Sometimes we find inner resources we don’t know we have, and we can lift that car up off the injured body of our situation. Sometimes someone else lifts that car and rescues us.
And sometimes not. I don’t count on miracle cures, white knights, or any form of deus ex machina, that device in old plays, where a god is cranked down from the rafters to offer instant solutions to the corner the characters have gotten themselves boxed into.
Yes, things could turn out very badly. The train could indeed wreck. In times of great apprehension, i let the direst scenario run its course in my mind and then remind myself that it is highly unlikely to happen that way. That is optimistic fatalism.
In this current situation, sequestered due to Covid 19, optimistic fatalism says yes, I could get this virus and die a gruesome death alone in an isolation ward. But I probably won’t. Yes, I could survive but be left with impaired health. Yes, but I haven’t heard any compelling evidence this is likely, and even if so, I believe I can come back, or find ways to cope.
What’s harder to deal with is the likelihood that even if I never catch it, I won’t escape from losing others not so fortunate. That’s the part I hate, because the thing about my optimistic fatalism is that it relies on my sense of personal efficacy, my own powers to influence outcomes. Beyond supporting the self isolation of those I love, beyond reaching out to see if I can pick up a quart of milk for an elderly neighbor, beyond donating to programs to help others, I have no ability to influence how this works out for others.
As for me, optimistic fatalism is probably assisted by something deep in my genes or biochemistry that makes me not tend easily to depression or feelings of helplessness, and for that I am eternally grateful. I also know that I have gone through life blessed with a modest but sufficient safety net of people and resources that have enabled me to survive some bad mistakes, and some truly awful life crises . For me, optimistic fatalism has been a safe bet as a philosophy, because even on the worst days of my life, I always believed I would come out okay on the other side.
I suspect Covid 19 will test my optimistic fatalism in major ways, because it has introduced a stronger sense of community in addition to individual outcomes, and I worry that the situation may erode communities in ways that no amount of resilience or positive thinking can offset. I don’t trust people in power to put our interests above their own. I can’t do anything about factors that could be set in stone, such as how many ventilators there will be when I or someone I love, needs one. Given that a lot of Americans have shown themselves in recent years to be a lot uglier than I thought, I don’t know what to expect if resources dwindle or a lot of people stop feeling adequately safe.
That’s fatalism speaking. It may not turn out that way. I may find some source of strength or power if it does. We’ll just have to see. And in the meantime, there’s a break in the rain, and I am going for a walk in the park. Six feet from other people, of course. Optimist fatalists aren’t stupid.