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How much pessimism is too much?

This post is scheduled to go up the day after the election, and I'm sure that no matter how things have shaken out, a fair chunk of the country is pretty annoyed right now.  So, for my writing journal today, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about cynicism.

"Cynicism" is one of those terms that everybody understands on a macro level, but it seems like the specific nuances get lost.  Even the textbook definitions aren't always accurate.  (Yeah, I'm of the descriptivist school... what of it?)  People use it as a synonym for pessimism or skepticism or doubt or distrust, and while those aren't far off the mark, that's not what cynicism is.  Here's the way I like to put it: cynicism is the belief that human beings suck no matter what you do, so there's no reason to try to get better.

It's an attitude that we're all a little too familiar with - especially on a day like today - and it's of special importance to me as a writer since that kind of mindset fundamentally changes the types of stories you tell.

I fancy myself a hopeful pessimist instead of a cynic.  I see that things kinda suck most of the time, but not always - and since "not always" means there's room for hope, it's always worth trying to be better than you are.  It means that you accept that most things aren't going to go the way you want most of the time, but you still need to look for the subtle ways that you can meaningfully improve your life and the world around you.

I like to think that this comes across in my writing.  I surely hope it does, anyway.  But there's a delicate balancing act you have to maintain when you inject pessimism in your story.  You do too little of it and your story feels superficial and half-baked.  You do too much of it and you become cynical.

I was thinking about this when I was watching Black Mirror the other week.  I've only seen a handful of episodes, but what I have seen is deeply morbid and upsetting.  The intent of the program is to ponder on the various pitfalls that technology may have in store for us if we aren't careful, as our weakest human tendencies may be exploited or enhanced in unintentional ways.  Since it is a reflection on our frailty (a black mirror, you might say), it is understandably a pessimistic show.

But I think it goes too far.  Too much of what I've seen has ended on such a dour note that it leaves you feeling a false sense of permanence: "This is how the world will end."  That, to me, is cynicism.

I'm not saying I want the show to always have a happy ending.  I just don't think it's honest to end in a way that leaves no wiggle room for a brighter future.  We are a resilient species.  We bounce back.  We find ways to laugh.  Even at our worst, humanity still finds ways to be beautiful.  If you discount all that and just go, "Nah, we're a bunch of fucking pigs, pun intended," then you're not really adding much to the conversation.

(Not to say that Black Mirror is a bad show.  I think it's extremely well made even if I don't agree with its attitudes.)

What I'm asking for out of the show is very hard to pull off.  I can't say for sure that I'm pulling it off, either.  I'll give you an example.  Possible mild spoilers for my unfinished, unreleased post-apocalyptic comedy book coming up.

The book I'm working on now is about humanity recovering after the end of the world.  So, right off the bat, there's some pessimism.  (The end of the world tends to be that way.)  What I'm going for is a mix of light and dark comedy that drives at the idea that our best resource is other human beings - that being an isolationist or a bigot or otherwise excluding other ideas and cultures from your life is a recipe for your own downfall.  I don't want to hammer the message down too hard, and I don't want to take the easy way out of any of the challenges I've set up for my characters.

Which means the ending is a bit of a thematic struggle right now.  I want to end with the protagonist more or less being squared away with his central conflict, which is that he owes a lot of debt to the new powers that be.  At the same time, I don't want him to get there through contrivance.  But the way I currently have it written, it's kinda like, "Yup, that sure was an adventure.  Say... there's a big pile of money over there!"  It's too convenient and I'm not happy with it.

But suppose I take that contrivance out.  What I'm left with is a guy who in effect is selflessly sacrificing everything of his own for everybody else at a time when nobody can afford to give anything away - and that's even more of a contrivance.  The dude isn't Jesus.  But if I make him more selfish, then I'd have to rethink some other parts of the story that would basically turn into him looking at people who need help and going, "Fuck you, I'm poor."  And that is really goddamn cynical.

So, I'm kinda stuck in a lot of ways.  I'm still trying to figure out that balancing act.

Regardless.  No matter how frustrating it is, I'm not giving up on the story.  I might not have figured it out this time around, but it's worth working at.  And no matter who it was that won last night (or will win, if we're in another 2000 situation right now), I hope that's the attitude we can all have moving forward.  I don't care what the government looks like - cynicism is the last goddamned thing we need right now.