The whole optimist/pessimist thing always seems to relate to the future, but I think there is more to it. Hard-wired into our limbic system is this survivalist mode, where avoidance of pain is at the forefront of the rear cortex. What this means is we have a pretty intense sense memory for pain, one which makes us recoil from hot stoves and stay away from eating Grandpa’s barbecue mistakes. As for pleasure, that system is pretty strong too, playing out in the form of addiction to sex or drugs or something dark and decadent at the end of a good meal.
The point here is the optimist/pessimist thing can also relate to the past. We can survey our own histories and find the horrors and mishaps and carry them like beasts of burden, or we can recall those hedonistic experiences where our adrenal glands wore out on the way to something climactic.
Tonight’s dinner discussion revolved around the strength of the past tense optimist/pessimist thing (which one was stronger). Some people believe that pessmism is stronger – avoidance of pain is critical to mastering things like relationships and workplace rejection and life’s small failures. Relying on their past to inform them, these “past pessimists” feel the power of past pains helps them avoid future suffering. They move away from negative futures.
Conversely, “past optimists” place their faith in pleasurable memories. They too depend on the visceral past, allowing their futures to be determined by the magnetic pull of positive experience. They believe understanding past pleasures provides a roadmap to future pleasure.
I guess a lot of this depends on the way you recall your life. Do you think back to those things that are painful and encumbering, or do you focus on the things that brought about joy and contentment? And how do those things inform who you are and how you think? I can imagine a time when memories will disappear like the scent of jasmine in a strong wind, but I’m hoping that I can retain some of them, the ones that matter, the ones that make me smile, the ones that make me a past optimist. In fact, I’m pretty optimistic that I can.