Robert Chalmers doesn't like... Optimists

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The Independent Online

Just how did the Führer phrase it, when he was outlining his scheme to the Generals, 70 years ago almost to the day? "I've got a good idea – let's attack the Soviet Union. How hard can it possibly be?"

Every calamitous excursion in history, from Lord Cardigan's Charge of the Light Brigade to General Custer's announcement that he was going to round up all those Indians, has its origin in the same human failing: optimism.

Once the exhilarating decision is taken, the optimist forges ahead dismissing possibly unwelcome consequences with the casual ease that an alcoholic exhibits in forgetting the hangover. Whether it's Russia or Afghanistan, Libya or Iraq, any attempt to invoke the disheartening lessons of experience, such as the potential for engineering a humiliating defeat, the mass slaughter of civilians, or even Armageddon, temporarily becomes an unpatriotic irrelevance.

A hypochondriac (so a friend tells me) will tirelessly research, then obsess over, the most catastrophic potential progression of their imagined illness. Every stage of their impending decline is relived, repeatedly, like a bad melodrama. Professional advice that contradicts their self-diagnosis is ignored. Optimists suffer a similar process of self-delusion, whereby inconvenient truths are overlooked in favour of images that fit the dream.

Where hypochondria is driven by anxiety – a treatable condition – optimism is fuelled by that famously ineradicable quality: hope. The optimist's defining belief is that this time – just for once – it will be different. Who could doubt that the crowds lining the Mall last weekend genuinely believed that this royal alliance will remain frozen in a state of touching perfection, unthreatened by any of the snags that troubled its predecessors: things like serial infidelity, intercepted phone calls discussing the erotic potential of sanitary products, and sudden death in peculiar circumstances. (And, for the sake of all concerned, you can only hope that – this time – they're right.)

Optimism is hardly confined to the governing classes: it's everywhere. A fortnight ago I saw it in Crewe. For reasons I can't quite explain even to myself, I went there to watch Stockport County, a team whose current predicament is difficult to convey in terms of league tables or balance sheets, but could better be assessed by the standard scientific measure of human distress known as the Beck Hopelessness Scale. That day, their only chance of avoiding relegation from the Football League would have been an away victory in the region of 38-0. And yet, on the train, two Stockport supporters were discussing a scenario involving a succession of 9-0 humiliations for their closest opponents. The travelling fans' reaction to a 2-0 defeat was not, as you might expect, tearful resignation, but disappointment, anger, a pitch invasion, ugly scuffles with police and the detonation of smoke bombs.

The advice given to correspondents covering conflict in the Middle East used to be this: imagine the worst possible outcome and you won't go far wrong. This would, admittedly, be a rather depressing philosophy if applied globally. Sometimes you do just have to hope for the best. The civil rights movement, for instance, might have struggled had its anthems had titles like: "We Might Overcome" and "We Will Make Every Reasonable Effort Not To Be Moved."

But there's a fine line, in its more extreme incarnations, between optimism and hubris. Pure optimists, whose focus tends to be principally on themselves, have an exaggerated and flattering view of their self-worth, talent, and even vulnerability (see forthcoming column on ITALIAN DRIVERS). You may recall Clive Sinclair and John DeLorean, with their unshakeable faith in their ridiculous cars. Another iconic optimist was Scott of the Antarctic, whose self-belief, even though it led to defeat and a slow and agonising death, has somehow come to be represented as a kind of triumph of the spirit we should do our utmost to emulate. With that in mind, Tesco is currently marketing the special blend of tea that Captain Scott took with him on his expedition to the Antarctic.

Pessimists, by and large, would prefer to start their day with a cup of whatever it was that Amundsen had in his flask. They are not inclined to drink their weight in grappa then run a red light at 90, or gamble away their house on the grounds that the horse's name or face reminded them of an ex-girlfriend, or, to return to a more serious note, to support legally dubious military adventures in the Middle East. That's because pessimists are aware that these are behaviour patterns that can lead to the optimist's least favourite subject of contemplation: Trouble. Pessimists know all about Trouble. Just like they know the old Jewish joke: "You want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans."

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