Thursday, January 5, 2012

On Whales & Wolves, Optimism & Pessimism

Frank and I (Ginny) recently watched the two-part DVD of Moby Dick, featuring William Hurt and Ethan Hawke. Though the title character is an enormous creature of the deep, the story offers an interesting glimpse of human behavior. It begins with Captain Ahab at home, struggling against the fake leg he has been cursed with since the great white whale crippled him during their last encounter at sea.

Still Ahab seems sane enough, soft spoken with his wife and son, and in quiet control of his familial relationships. It isn’t until he returns to active pursuit of the deadly whale that viewers are privy to his mental state, free of its mask. Revenge brings out the worst in him, exacerbated by the stress that goes with the hardships of life aboard a vessel manned by a crew of na├»ve and, in most part, not-so-bright mariners. It is a story of obsession that sinks into insanity and, although some of the sailors are colorful characters and quite likable, I found myself rooting for the whale (which was, I’m sure, the intent of the author. Well done, Herman Melville).

Psychology teaches that humans basically move intuitively away from pain and toward pleasure, but wires get crossed and behavior becomes bizarre. When this occurs, quite often delusion sets in and people behaving in the most irrational ways consider themselves perfectly rational. Their mental imbalance becomes their norm and it is others who do not share their warped view of reality who are judged by them to be flawed in their thinking. Captain Ahab would have had a difficult time understanding why any sane person would have dealt with Moby Dick in any way other than to impose suffering on others and sacrificing lives in the name of revenge.

This movie makes for fascinating people-watching by those who are inclined toward observation and analysis of human behavior. I love the way Jungian Psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes puts it in writing of wolves. They never look at anything; they look around it, beside it, over it, under it and, if possible, through it. They are rarely fooled and in this regard they surpass humans, who can be easily taken in by the false words of others, and feigned behavior. We often see and hear what we want to see and hear, for better or worse.

Consider optimism, which is a good thing; however, too much of a good thing can turn it bad. Likewise, pessimism can sometimes serve us well. In terms of mental health the middle road is the safest path. Somewhere between optimism and pessimism is realism. Here's the kicker: It’s a nice place to visit but due to the nature of the human mind, few of us get to live there. At best reality becomes the base camp from which we are forever setting out in one direction or the other in pursuit of… whatever.

As hunters and gatherers we don’t survive by sitting still. Sometimes we get lost. We fail to see the signs along the way, or see but ignore or misinterpret them. We’re misled by other travelers, either intentionally or un. We’re called upon to make a choice, and by opting into this we are coincidentally opting out of that. Some of us never find our way back to base camp, we simply set up a new one.

There is a school of thought that tells us never look back. I find this thinking erroneous. Life lessons line up behind us, proud to have served and deserving of our appreciation. We learn the alphabet in elementary or preschool, but we would be foolish to leave it behind as finished business. It is imperative that we acknowledge it in order to put letters in an order that creates words, and then to string words together to make sentences. The past is important. It simply needs to be put in its proper place in our life.

Captain Ahab got it wrong. Instead of drawing from his past with an eye toward ensuring a better future, he was driven by it, and driven in the wrong direction. He relinquished both control and objective reflection. Some lessons are more painful than others, and loss of his leg was a high price to pay. A higher price, however, was loss of his sanity. Moby Dick didn’t take that from him. Ahab gave it away. For him there was no new base camp to be set up, unless you count the bottom of the deep, dark sea.

Studies have shown that in general optimists are happier than pessimists; however, pessimists are more accurate in their world view; more realistic, if you will. I suppose the question becomes: Do you prefer the softened sight provided by rose colored glasses, or the clear vision that lets you face the future head on?

I believe one secret to success is recognizing the difference between the two, and holding both options close at hand -- realizing of course which approach is most appropriate at any given time, and remembering that from the middle road we can always step with agility in one direction or the other.