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March 26th, 2019
William James defined ‘solemn’ as a state that includes some amount of its opposite. A solemn joy is a happiness that does not forget the existence of sadness. The solemn grief is a sadness that does not ignore the joy of past times and times to come.
This use of solemn is a useful default to develop because it safeguards against the vicious cycles that can quickly grow to dominate our thinking in unhelpful and detrimental ways. A negative thought about a person or situation that is balanced by some countervailing positive interpretation does not spin out of control and steer our mind into a Rut.
Such an attitude of mind might be interpreted as level-headed, but there is a significant difference between remaining always neutral and having the ability to entertain extremes of thought without getting lost on such slippery slopes.
This is the difference between being level-headed and being equipped with an Even Keel.
So many motivational speakers are merely attempting to pump people up with a blast of positive mental attitude. Which, like a joke, or reading an incisive and clever quote, feels good and most likely delivers a short term blast of dopamine. Rarely are such enthusiastic provocations long lasting, unless such experiences are turned into a daily exercise where such positive outlook is systematically replenished. Even so, such mental attitude is just first gear to get a person going.
An evolved flavor of such optimistic leanings would be in line with William James’ use of the word solemn.
A solemn optimism is an outlook that believes the future can be better but also holds in mind that it won’t necessarily be so, and could in fact be quite a lot worse than our present state of affairs. Such balanced extremes comprise the complete opposite of a neutral and inactive mind frame which is typified by salve-esque statements like It’ll be Fine.
The difference here is like walking a Tightrope with the extreme of falling to each side in balance, and taking a slide to some unknown place. The neutral mind frame characterized by statements like It’ll be fine willingly abdicates agency in order to be lazy. The Tightrope walked by the active optimist, on the other hand, is like a line pulled tight between reality and a dream of what that reality could be.
It’s curious to note how difficult it is to imagine solemn pessimism. Would this be like someone getting sucked down into a whirlpool of negativity while still looking back up at a bright sky? Or is a pessimism that keeps in mind optimistic possibilities a paradox? A person who identifies with such might claim to be more realistic, but the most realistic thing we can do is manipulate reality as a way of calibrating our imagination to the limits of reality, and flexing reality towards our better dreams. The mere act of doing and trying arises more in the optimist than in the pessimist, and by such the actions of the optimist certainly seem more concerned with what is and isn’t real, for the optimist tests for such. Then there’s the solemn optimist, who is never disappointed when something doesn’t work out, but notes the result, and steadfastly, moves on.
This episode references Episode 125: Rut, Episode 309: Even Keel, Episode 129: Positive Mental Attitude is Just First Gear, Episode 316: It’ll Be Fine, and Episode 88: Tightrope