Optimistic Fatalism

March 20th, 2020

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.


You Cower

March 17th, 2020

I have been worrying a lot about the bad and deteriorating home lives many people will face sequestered with toxic people. This came out of that thinking this morning:

You cower under the covers because someone at home has been drinking all day
Or someone has thrown the remote at the television, yelling because there are no sports to watch
Or someone needs sex they can’t go get elsewhere
Or you whined one too many times about having nothing to do
Or you asked too many questions no one has answers to
Or you used the last of something it won’t be easy to replace
Or broke something
Or laughed at something
Or cried about something
Or just breathed too loud.
You cower because you used to be able to get away to school
Or the senior center
To a friend’s house
To the baseball diamond
To the park
To the after school job
The broken dishes and shrieks

The steps in the hallway
The creak on the stairs
The shrieks and broken glass.
“Where are you hiding?” The voice comes. It always comes.
You cower because there used to be a chance the doorbell might ring.
You have symptoms. The sweat, the shakes of fear.
They will last as long as this does, or as long as you do, whichever is less.
Because no one, no hiding place can save you.

Categories of Time

March 16th, 2020

In the years between 2008 and 2014 I published five full-length books (four novels and one work of narrative nonfiction).  That’s five books in six years, all from major publishers, with all the editing and other work that entails. When people ask me how I did it, I honestly can’t figure it out, since I was also a full-time professor during those years.

 When I was teaching, I actually looked forward to going back in the fall, not just because I loved that part of my life, but because I recognized how much I benefited from the  structure it provided.

My biggest problem during breaks was not procrastination or idleness but the opposite. When I am writing a book, I am a house afire. I simply cannot type as fast as the story and the dialogue is rushing through my mind. I cannot wait to see what is going to happen next, and who is going to say what.The characters and their stories become richer the deeper I go into the world of my book.  I begin to understand nuances and meanings I did not see at the outset.

It is such an exhilarating ride that  I will not get up for hours. I start around 6AM and look up and realize it’s 11.  I tell myself to get up, get dressed, eat something, but then I get sucked in again for just one more scene, until by 2PM I am wobbling and lightheaded when I finally stand up.

To keep writing a novel from making a train wreck of the rest of my life during summer and semester breaks, I developed what I called Categories of Time.  Now, as I sit in my condo waiting out the period of self-isolation from this virus I have good reason not to want to name, I am once again looking to my Categories of Time to provide some guidance.  I offer the concept here in the hope that it will be helpful to others wondering how to get through this without bringing out the worst tendencies in themselves.

The idea is to identify the the activities  that help you achieve a balanced, healthy life and stay on track towards your goals.  You then make a commitment to spend one hour a day on each.  Back then, I established these five categories: writing, promoting my success as an author, exercise, life maintenance and recreation.  Life maintenance included everything from taking a shower, to paying bills, to doing laundry, to buying groceries, to preparing a meal.   Recreation meant that I had to spend one hour doing something I might otherwise call a waste of time—playing Scrabble, watching television, surfing the net for nothing in particular.

This last was, to my surprise, the hardest to stick to when I was writing.  Some were easy or necessary to spend far more than  an hour on at least some days, but the whole point, really is to make yourself fit in the whole variety over the course of your waking hours.

My categories are different now, though they still add up to five, which seems a workable number, though yours might differ.  They may evolve, but how I see mine now is as follows, in no particular order:

Creative Time:  I have been thinking about a writing project of a new sort altogether, and will be exploring that.  Keeping it close to the vest for now

Life maintenance:  see above

Reaching Out to Others in Isolation:  phone, text, email, Zoom, FaceTime, etc

Recreation:  see above

Exercise:  daily walk, plus find some hotel exercise and/or stretching routines, since these could be more easily adapted for my condo

The rest of the day, encompassing all hours you are awake,  can be divided daily however you want among these categories, but you must do each one for a minimum of one hour.  How this helped me when I was writing maniacally is that around 2PM, I would say to myself “Yikes!  I have four more categories to fit in today!”   It simply wasn’t appropriate or even possible to work any more, and understanding this, I was able to stop.  It worked then, and I think it will work now.

Well, now I have the Reaching Out category nailed for today with this blog post.  Hope it is of some benefit to you.