I. Learned Optimism
You know the concept of learned helplessness?
Some psychologist (Martin Seligman) realized that inadvertently, certain lab tests were training dogs to become helpless. The scientists gave the dogs a mild shock, and the dogs had no way to avoid it, so later when they DID have a way to avoid it, they didn't even try to.
Seligman demonstrated humans do the same thing, as we can easily see.
What I just learned, however, is that Seligman got more interested in the fact that a whopping 30 percent of humans and other animals do NOT stop trying. And 10 percent never tried at all in the first place.
So his life work became trying to figure out how we might learn and teach optimism--something called positive psychology (it's a whole dept. at U Penn.
(I haven't watched it yet, but he gives a TED Talk, On Positive Psychology.)
II. The Concentration Camp of the Mind
My mother taught me young that the Holocaust reflects true human nature (a person is either evil, culpably ignorant, or an innocent--and helpless--victim). She ridiculed cheerful thinking as shallow.
I eventually jettisoned her philosophy as innacurate and unhelpful--formed by her own intermittent experiences of existence as an inescapable concentration camp and the outside world as generally populated by shallow and callous people--but its power flickers seductively on the edges of my vision. ("Come back, come back, and all will be made clear").
So I'm always looking for anchors to hold in place my belief--my experience--that it is possible to be good, happy, and smart. While I cringe at simplistic Pollyanna-ish thinking, complex Pollyanna-ish thinking appeals to me a lot.
III. Reclaiming the Inner Captain Kirk
Uh, anyway, when I read about the dogs that never (never never never) give in, I recognized it as the Captain Kirk Phenomenon.
I do not have this.
But I do have a sort of squashed and battered resilience.
My mother always had mixed feelings about the parts of me that were at all Kirkian. She liked my cheerful nature, but she was suspicious that it might indicate lack of depth.
And so I, even after an adulthood of rejecting her equation, still feel mixed. I want to be optimistic--it's in my nature--but I scoff at it too.
Mostly, though, I love any sign that it has survived the early onslaught of pessimism, and I continually struggle to reclaim it, free and clear.
I took one of the Learned Optimism tests and I was cheered that I only rank "mildly pessimistic."
Pretty good, considering.
I was even more cheered this morning when I went looking in my iPhotos for a picture of Kirk, for something unrelated.
iPhoto has a feature called "Faces" that finds all the photos showing a certain person's face--you just provide an example for it to work from.
The program isn't always correct, of course, and its mistakes are sometimes amusing.
This morning I saw that iPhoto had added a photo of me (from the red wall series I took earlier this summer) to the "Kirk Faces." Along with a couple other characters. Proof, that, after all, I'm Captain Kirk!
(OK, that Moomin shot contains Kirk's face on a mug, but I like to think it's the Moomin herself (this is Snorkmaiden)--the Moomin are a prime example of complex optimism--Tove Jansson created them out of her depression during World War II in Finland--and that's depression at -40 degrees.)
I'll throw in 17 seconds of old Winnie too. Can't pin Easy Optimism on him.
Can we re-invigorate our squashed optimism, after it's been buried under a rubbish heap of intelligent pessimism?
I think so, at least partly. (My mild pessimism permit cautious optimism on this point.)
So, I've enrolled in "Reclaim Your Inner Kirk, 101" at C-KAPE (the Captain Kirk Academy for the Pursuit of Excellence), where I've been studying for a couple years now.
All are welcome.