The passing of Nelson Mandela has re-emphasised the way in which our country has changed for the better. But, it has also indicated the amount of hard work that is still necessary to achieve the fulfilment of his legacy. We have hard times ahead of us and, as has been the case, pessimism will again flourish.
I have often wondered why the writings of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) are not more popular in South Africa. He was known as the ‘prince’ of pessimism, which, if we are not careful, we will allow to develop into an art form.
Schopenhauer believed that the world was made up of misfortune and affliction. The only consolation was that there was always someone worse off than you. We may not always be aware of them, but pain and suffering are around us all of the time. We may obtain short-term relief, but mankind’s fate is bleak and there is nothing we can about this.
Misfortune, pain and boredom do, however, have their uses. According to Schopenhauer, they can act as driving forces and ‘prevent us from going mad’. If we existed in a state of total happiness and serenity we would have no will to change anything; we would vegetate, albeit in a happy frame of mind.
In Schopenhauer’s view, the essence of our humanity is our unconscious will and not reality, which, according to him in any case, is just an illusion. Our behaviour and our circumstances are determined by our will and not by external forces. There is nobody to blame: we and the causes of our problems are part of a single system. We construct our world according to our will. Without hardship, there would just be acceptance and no construction.
Thomas Hardy, a firm follower of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, believed that pessimism is playing the sure game. You cannot lose at it; you may gain. It is the only view of life in which you can never be disappointed. If you survive in the worst possible circumstances, when better arise, as they may, life will become child's play.
Pessimists are people who have no hope for themselves or for others. Oscar Wilde said: “if given the choice of two evils, a pessimist chooses both”.
We have all been through a great deal of trauma before and during the transformation of our country. But, Nelson Mandela’s vision has not become reality. Many underprivileged people remain underprivileged. Political, social and cultural changes have made us fearful and anxious. The restructuring of businesses and the advent of ‘jobless growth’, largely as a result of globalisation and increased competition, have changed our perception of such things as employee loyalty and job security. Crime and corruption have not helped us to alter our negative attitudes.
So, what do we do? Do we wallow in our pessimism, believing like Thomas Hardy that if we survive this, anything else will be a doddle?
Paradoxically, Schopenhauer may hold the key: we must use our pessimism to get us out of this state of mind. We must construct a better world by using our will. We must not accept our perceptions of the reality around us.
Firstly, unlike true pessimists, we must act on the legacy of Nelson Mandela and become agitating and caring individuals. We must not breed indifference to others; we must not be consoled by other peoples’ misery. Our survival and success are interconnected and interdependent to those of others. We must have the necessary will to alleviate the suffering of others. We must have the will to work for the survival of our country. Over and over Mandela emphasised action, not just talk, and we must listen to his message.
Our communications media must take the trouble to thrust positive views upon the unconvinced, even if these are unpopular in some quarters or received with cynicism. Positive communication is an antidote for pessimism. Focusing on problems without looking for solutions is demolition not construction.
The corporate world, a strong generator of negativity in recent times, needs to become a champion of optimism. Decisions that can affect all the stakeholders of a company, including shareholders, employees, unions and communities, need to be interactively discussed: pessimism often arises when affected people are kept uninformed. Companies that want to re-engineer themselves must be honest and communicate frankly the real reasons for wanting change. So often employees feel they are responsible for a company’s shortcomings and this leads to doubts in confidence and fear of losing their jobs. Positive feedback is a means of reducing fear and anxiety. A company’s vision must include the positive contributions that all employees can make.
Human beings are wonderful at imagining negatives and miserable at imagining positives. That will not change. What must change is the environment around us. A more positive one will put us in a position of being better able to give the future the benefit of the doubt and go a long way to achieving Nelson Mandela’ vision of a great South Africa.
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