In praise of pessimism

At this time of year, I’m always reminded of when I moved to Poland from the UK, many years ago. Then, like now, the country was basking in a warm spell – the kind of extended summer that in the English-speaking world is called an ‘Indian summer’ and that’s known here as a ‘babie lato’. But while the British view such weather as a delightful bonus, to my surprise it only seemed to make Poles more agitated

It was as though summer had simply decided not to end that year, as the hot weather sweltered on well into October. But despite those golden days, my first impression of Polish people was of grumpiness. The apparent reason for this was given to me by one of my first acquaintances here: “People are in a bad mood right now because the weather is so nice – it reminds them that summer will end soon and winter’s just around the corner,” she explained. So, even though there was more summer, it couldn’t be enjoyed – the balmy weather was merely taunting us, ready to turn bitter and bite us at any moment. And sure enough, it did. Midway through November, after just a couple of weeks of “autumn”, Warsaw was knee-deep in snow. Temperatures plummeted from the mid-twenties the month before to below -10⁰C – and more or less stayed that way for the next four months. When the sun eventually showed its face again, it was mid-March, and it was only then that the frozen snow that covered the city finally started to melt. For myself, used to mild British winters, all of this was a shock and was even hard to cope with. But Warsaw’s longer-term inhabitants just shrugged it off. Grumpy no longer, because what they had been dreading had actually happened, they just got on with things. Then I began to understand the perplexing attitude they had had towards the Indian summer – they had been preparing themselves for the winter by fearing for the worst well in advance. And so, when the worst came, it was much more bearable.

Those extreme winters that I shivered through in my first few years here now seem to be a thing of the past, consigned to the meteorological history books by global warming. But as I soon found out, this pragmatic form of pessimism embraced by Poles was also applied to other spheres than just the seasonal weather. Poland was already a member of Nato when I arrived and on its way to EU membership. But when I made the point back then to some Polish people that now they had shaken themselves free from communism and were securely within these alliances that only good times lay ahead for the country, the response I tended to hear from them was: “Oh, this is just a phoney peace – another war will break out, sooner or later.” Although such a gloomy outlook obviously stems from Poland’s tragic history over the last few centuries – of invasion, partition and occupation, compounded by the feeling that the country was sold out by its supposed allies – it still struck me as a bizarre view to hold, given that according to Article 5 of the treaty, an attack on one Nato state is regarded as an attack on the entire bloc. In fact, these doom-mongers turned out to be partly right. Last year, war did break out – but fortunately for Poland, beyond its eastern borders. And unlike much of what’s termed the West, Poland seemed to expect it and was prepared for it. Over all the time that the West was courting Putin, believing that they could work with him or moderate him or wait for a more acceptable successor, the Poles had never had any such illusions about the nature of the man and the regime he created – and what this would inevitably lead to. Once again, Polish pessimism has proven itself to be a superior attitude to hold than the misconceived optimism of others.

One of my Polish friends has explained this attitude to me in this way: “If you always expect the best, you often lose because you’re often wrong. But if you expect the worst, you never lose – either you were wrong and things turn out to be much better than you had hoped for, or they turn out to be as bad as you predicted, so then you have the satisfaction of having been right.” In this way, the outcomes for a pessimist are always (for want of a better word) “happy”. I’m not going to go so far as to advocate pessimism as the ideal philosophy of life, as it can be taken too far; but as my Polish friends have taught me, maybe the right way to live and the secret of true happiness is to be at least a bit gloomy.