The author makes the case for embracing 2022 in an optimistic mood: after all, worrying about all the bad things that could happen only increases their impact on your life
Like anybody who loves procrastinating, I write a lot of lists. You know the kind of thing: a series of tasks collated in order of size, and almost always preceded by two or three that I’ve already done so I can cross them off straight away as a little freebie to myself.
The function of these lists should be to lay things out in a practical manner, helping tackle a set of problems one by one. But this is not how I use them. My method is to write all the things down, cross off the ones I’ve already done then completely forget about said list forever. The act of writing the list becomes, in and of itself, the tonic I need. It’s surprising that this sleight of hand works, since I’m aware that I’m doing it. Here I am, in a newspaper article describing exactly the illusion I perform upon myself, and yet I will soon cast this same magic trick on my simple brain all over again, more than likely within a week of finishing this sentence.
I’m thinking about this because I make a lot of these lists in December and January, and this time has been no different. As work mounts and personal chores pile up, I’ll write down gifts I have to buy, travel plans I need to make, the names of commissioning editors for whom I’ve now missed too many deadlines and must arrange to have professionally killed.
Since I rarely return to these lists once I’ve written them — luckily for those editors, at least — I only ever see them a long time later, languishing in some forgotten notebook or mess-strewn kitchen drawer. They are a charming reminder of what was agitating me in a time of high stress or the lofty plans I was making at some point too distant to remember. Resolutions to get fitter, to get back into running, to brush up my German, to finally book that trip I always wanted to take, to revisit this or that writing project, to learn how to paint.
Oh, what a chaotic glossary of hopes and desires, of the things I wanted to do and see, to learn or change about myself. Some of these impulses were so short-lived that I have no memory of them even now. “Does that say learn mountain climbing?” I ask out loud, to no one, utterly baffled by myself as I flip through page after page. They amount to a charming, fossilised reminder of the futility of making plans, and the hopeful optimism of the human heart.
The optimism that tells me every December that I might do a silent retreat at some point in the next year, or get really good at Photoshop. It’s this kind of optimism I mean when I call myself an optimist, and why I invite every one of us to believe that 2022 will be a better time for us all.
When I say I’m optimistic about 2022, I should clarify what I have to compare it to. I spent the first minutes of 2021 reeling from Covid, to whose effects I’d succumbed the evening before. These hit quickly, settling in a few minutes before 11pm on New Year’s Eve, just as I was settling in to watch Jools Holland’s Hootenanny. He’d barely had time to do that thing where he spins on his heels to introduce a troupe of Kuwaiti accordionists as if they’re the Rolling Stones, before I was struck, deep in my waters, with the certainty that I would not be making it to the chimes of midnight.
By 11.15pm I was sweating in bed. By 2am, I’d been exiled to the upstairs box room, in the hope I could be quarantined from the family. This hope proved to be in vain as, one-by-one, my son, wife and both her parents would test positive, leaving us to squirm in various states of codependent misery as the new year dawned.
I would stay in that box room, mostly motionless and groaning, for the next week, too ill to do very much of anything, and feeling miraculously sorry for myself. I decided that I would probably never recover and this would be my lot for the rest of my life.
Illness, you see, provides me a rare holiday to the land of pessimism, as I am a horrible patient. So bad, in fact, that even describing my behaviour in such times seems like the hackneyed script of a beleaguered, oafish sitcom dad. The slightest cold or flu reduces me to a grumbling, bitter wretch, incapable of perspective or self-awareness. “Honey, you have a mild temperature, you’ll be fine,” my wife will say, while I google “last will and testament” and start imagining the tender, beautiful obituaries that will be written about me in the serious papers, full of talk of the “unfulfilled promise” of this “charming bon viveur”, who was “surprisingly handsome for a writer” and amounted to “a brilliant, beautiful life cut tragically short”.
In the end, my Covid wasn’t as severe, or long-lasting, as others’ and it didn’t plague me with the after-effects from which so many have suffered. I didn’t develop tricky breathing, or even lose my sense of taste or smell. Mine was the “weighed down by a tonne of bricks as every joint and muscle pulses with dull aches” variety of Covid, which — I am aware — is one of the better flavours available.
But it was still sufficiently awful that I emerged, groggy and blinking, into the second week of January with a renewed appreciation for many things: for the people who moved heaven and earth to make sacrifices all year, right down to the family and friends who dropped off food packages for us; for the miraculous work done on tackling the biggest public health crisis that’s existed in several decades; for the righteous fire and fury of people making it clear that we haven’t done enough and there is so much more to do.
It’s this that has enforced my sense of myself as that least cool or relatable creature in contemporary life: an optimist in a world that seems on fire.
My wife, by contrast, is not an optimistic person. She is, in fact, one of those people who mistakes pessimism for clairvoyance. “I knew this would happen,” she says, every single time something bad occurs. In a literal sense, she is right. She did know it was going to happen, because she reflexively insists that every bad thing is going to happen, long before it ever does.
I will not bore you with my wife’s many and varied good qualities. The practice of foregrounding criticism with obligatory praise always strikes me as affected, a piece of rhetorical throat-clearing that only ever heightens the serious act of character assassination you’ve sat down to perform. Also, she frequently contradicts me when I’m telling slightly exaggerated stories in public and regularly alleges that I am not quite the six-feet-tall I report as my true height, so I feel justified in using every platform at my disposal to address her few, and trifling, failings.
She is one of the few pessimists who wears that badge openly, and bristles at my optimism both in theory and in practice. She not only knows that she habitually convinces herself that bad things will always happen, and forever, she also recommends this pattern of thought to anyone who will listen.
She is, in short, an evangelist for pessimism. It is her belief that this very act of presuming bad things will always happen is itself a bulwark against disappointment. “You see,” the theory goes, “if I presume the worst and then it doesn’t come to pass, it’s like a pleasant surprise, all the time.”
The problem with this way of thinking, I frequently reply, is that living in a constant sense of glowering discontentment at future events takes up more mental energy than withstanding the brief moments of disappointment that would come from letting things play out in real time.
To her, my optimism is intellectual laziness, the thought patterns of a dog, as judged by a scornful and superior cat. For me, it’s not about refusing to accept that bad times will never arrive, rather it’s accepting that they will, but realising that my having worried about them beforehand will have merely doubled their impact on my life.
Optimism, to me, is saying “I think things can get better so let’s work to make it so.” Whereas braying, “Cheer up, it might never happen!” to people who raise valid concerns about the world in which we live is just being a d***. Don’t mistake optimism for complacency, though. I’ll admit to mistaking the two from time to time. I’m sympathetic to the notion that those who aren’t despairing seem uncannily like they haven’t been paying attention.
Certainly, there does seem something gauche, or even privileged, about those who reflexively appeal to the better angels of our nature. Worse still, many of the people who brand others naysayers and pessimists do so out of self-interest, or an unwillingness to interrogate the actual harms we face as a country and a society. These are the same people who would have us believe that climate change or social injustice are not the problems they’re made out to be, or that a global pandemic that has killed millions of people will probably just get better all on its own.
I suppose I want to reclaim the mantle of optimism from those who seek to pollute it with wishful thinking and bad faith; people who tell us everything will be fine, even if we just do nothing — and if they, specifically, do littlest of all.
When I say I’m optimistic, I mean that I’m optimistic about the likelihood that we can find a way out of this; not that it won’t be hard or that it won’t require sacrifices from me, personally. I’m optimistic that we will forge a better society, and that such a thing is possible, but not that we will do so tomorrow, or that it’ll be easily done. Just like I’m optimistic enough to know I could go back and brush up my German, as I wanted to in New Year’s 2014, but that it won’t happen unless I actually put the work in. After all, self-belief can mean self-delusion.
This year, the things on my list are much the same as ever. I want to travel with my family, get a bit healthier, work on those creative projects I’ve let slip away. More broadly, I want my family to be safe and well, for science to come through on Covid and climate action, and for the world to cohere into a stronger, more loving unit that does better by its most vulnerable inhabitants. I just don’t include those last three kinds of things in my year-end lists because it would seem a bit weird to put them in writing.
I refuse to be pessimistic about things I can’t predict, to make the last two years harden my heart against the thought that better things might be ahead. Perhaps pessimism, like resentment, is the equivalent of drinking poison and waiting for the other fella to die. I’m humble in the face of the good luck I’ve had, and thankful for it. I guess my optimism might simply be seen is the flipside of thankfulness; if we have things for which we can give thanks now, I choose to entertain a reasonable expectation of having more things to be thankful for in the future.
When I emerged from my stupor last January, one of the rambling, chaotic thoughts I had rattling through my head came from Flann O’Brien.
He described his formulation of the perfect drink as “a beverage which is expected to revolutionise human society”. It was, he wrote, “a pink liquid and after a glass of it you feel rather seedy. A second glass and you are depressed. A third and an appalling pathological morbidity has descended on you”. But, he assured us, “assuming you get home to bed, what a difference the next morning! The whole house resounds with your thunderous operatic arias, windows are thrown up, backs slapped and your joy at being alive roars in great gusts through the lives of the whole startled community. People stop to watch you in the street in envy and astonishment. The curious effect the liquid has the next morning is called a hang-under”.
2020 and 2021 may have given us all a little too much of the pink drink, and we have been through the seedy, pathological morbidities. All I ask in my list of demands for 2022, is that there be hang-unders for all of us, in the year to come.
Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly (Little, Brown) won Biography of the Year at the 2021 An Post Irish Book Awards