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Sociability • Confidence

Abandoning Hope

Our dips in confidence can have an unlikely-sounding source: hope. We become hopeful that things can turn out well and that we will get through events without setback and frustration – but then, when life turns out to be trickier than we’d budgeted for, fall prey to grave panic, despair and anger.

Photo of a young child hiding its head in its arms, seated in the middle of an empty suburban cul-de-sac.
 Brian Shumway, Happy Valley, 2014

We end up defeated because we expect – in the background – that people will be kind, that those we try to date will be reliable, that parents will be mature, that colleagues will be grateful and dedicated, that it will be easy to write a book, that finding a profession will be simple, that the political process will be intelligent, that the media will be subtle, that the trains will run on time, that our children will be kind and that the holidays will bring rest and respite.

We are being reckless. In order to dampen our cycles of hope and sadness, and all the wounds to our self-esteem and sense of balance these entail, we need to turn ourselves into misanthropes. The last thing young people aspiring to a life of action and resilience should be hearing about is happiness. We become strong through well-targeted doses of gloom. In this regard, the United States, the most monomaniacally optimistic country on earth, does its citizens an enormous disservice – promising them that nothing less than that contentment might be within reach, and thereby condemning them to ongoing, unnecessary doses of alienation and rage.

To build up confidence, the young need from an early age to be taught that love is largely a chimera, that workplace success will be elusive, that anxiety is more or less permanent, that the species is wicked and the political process decadent; only against such a pitch black backdrop will the inevitable frustrations they will encounter seem, not as now, violations of a contract, but ordinary and for the most masterable hurdles they were waiting for from the start. 

The French eighteenth century essayist Chamfort observed that a man should swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more revolting in the day ahead. To properly guard one’s sanguinity, a handful of toads might be advised.

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