Learned pessimism

calvin-and-hobbesAs a new year dawns, we can all agree that things are looking dour for Venezuela. The economic outlook is ghastly, and the political one is not brighter. It takes enormous energy to will oneself out of a pessimistic mood.

And that’s exactly how the government wants it.

For many in the opposition’s rank-and-file, everything the government does, or fails to do, leaves them bewildered and downtrodden. What. Can. We. Do?

The sadness many of us feel for not being able to see a light at the end of the tunnel is understandable. And you know what it does? It paralyzes us.

Over the holidays, one of the things I read was The Optimistic Child, a book by the noted psychologist, Prof. Martin Seligman. In it, the author talks about the depression epidemic in the world, but not by talking about how to “cure” it, but by looking at its early signs, the patterns of development that lead to it.

Seligman convinced me that the roots of depression are planted in childhood, and particularly in the outlook on life that we develop as children.

Kids can be optimistic or pessimistic. For example, “I did badly on this test because I’m not good at anything” is a sign of a pessimistic child, one who exaggerates flaws or mistakes and makes sweeping generalizations about his behavior or the world. On the contrary, “I did badly on this test, so I should probably study more in order to do better next time” is something a more optimistic child would say or think – the judgment on her performance is limited to the task at hand, and it offers up a positive agenda for improvement.

Selgiman quotes extensive research that points to pessimism as being the seed of depression. A pessimistic child will grow up thinking there is nothing he can do to improve his situation because of who he “is” or what his general “abilites” are. After all, if you think you are “stupid,” or “bad at everything,” then there is no point in trying. Depression is but the natural extension of helplessness, of a learned inability to change your circumstances.

An optimistic child will grow up to be more pro-active. She will recognize her flaws without making broad character generalizations. Sure, some things are harder than others for some people, but there is always a place for hard work and good luck.

Seligman recommends techniques for parents to try to change a child from a pessimistic outlook to a more optimistic one. If you can change a child’s pattern of behavior – of how she judges herself – early on, you may prevent depression later in life.

Much of what chavismo does or says has to do with making us “pessimistic children.” Think about it – every catch phrase, every statement about the opposition points to our incapacity to change our fate. We are “squalid” and “majunche.” We “won’t return” (“no volverán”). We are “crazy because of Chávez.” Only chavistas “can handle the crisis.” The revolution “advances to a winner’s march.” We need to march towards “communicational hegemony.”

They do whatever they want with the Constitution, and we can’t do anything about it. They constantly badger us with their successes, and our inabilities. Sadness leads to depression, and that leads to demobilization.

It’s all part of a script. As we begin a new year, it would be useful to come to grips with this cycle and break it.

The pattern through which we buy into broad statements about ourselves needs to stop if we are to have a chance. We need to start looking at things as they are, and not as chavismo wants us to.

Things look difficult, but not impossible.

The economic crisis is overwhelming, but countries have overcome far worse situations than this with vastly inferior resources.

Our opposition leadership is disappointing, but there are good, brave, natural leaders in it.

Winning an election under chavismo’s total grip on institutions is difficult, but not impossible.

The media landscape in Venezuela is unfair, but it’s still not totalitarian.

We can’t change the institutions in one sweep, but we can try winning the few spaces we can.

Chavismo has never been weaker, both financially, and in terms of popular support.

These are not cliches. They are not self-help quotes picked out to help us feel better about ourselves. This … is the truth.

Optimism is a choice, but not one based on false premises, or on a fake rosy outlook. It is based on a grounded view of reality, one that fairly assesses limitations and possibilities, one that sees opportunities even if they are dim.

The pattern through which chavistas teach us to be pessimists has to stop, and I hope to use the blog to focus on the positives. We need to recognize unhelpful behavior, and do our best to change it. We need to fairly assess our strengths and weaknesses without making sweeping, demobilizing generalizations. This year, I will try to use the blog as an instrument in that battle.

Call it Caracas Chronicles’ new year’s resolution.

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