I have never witnessed the scene, but I have heard of a tactic used by the ostrich. When it perceives a predator lurking nearby, the bird, which seems to have escaped from the Jurassic era, focuses all its defence not on fleeing but on hiding. But how to hide such a bulky body? “It’s easy,” the ostrich says, “I’ll just bury my head in the sand; I won’t see my predator, and he won’t see me either.” It is an age-old practice, and one that perhaps has met with more failures than years of use, and nonetheless, there are people who still resort to it now and then, convinced that it will work. I say people, because this strategy is not only for ostriches. Among humans, it is known by two names: optimism and pessimism.
Deception and cowardice
I do not know how optimism has survived in this world of ours. And I say this not only because all the best things in the world – which are, in principle, the object of hope – are being persecuted and extinguished; nor even because it seems like a very rare event – at least for me – when everything turns out well. I assert not knowing how optimism survives simply because it is a deception.
The same goes for pessimism. At a superficial glance, it might be conjectured that the attitude its adherents take towards the future, people, advice, life, and ultimately everything, is one of mature prudence. I would agree with this assumption if there were a truly just balance in these misgivings. But if the caution caused by the pessimistic analysis degenerates into a premise that a priori rejects any probability of success, then of course any initiative also becomes impossible. And in my language that is called cowardice. After all, as Ernest Hello rightly pointed out, “the man who gives up can do nothing and is only a hindrance. The man who does not give up can move mountains. What man has the right to utter the word impossible, when God has promised His presence and His help?”1
Sophisms that explain, but do not justify
Nevertheless, everyone has his own reasons for believing the lie he tells himself. In fact, says St. Augustine, “man’s love of truth is such that when he loves something which is not the truth, he pretends to himself that what he loves it the truth, and because he hates to be proved wrong, he will not allow himself to be convinced that he is deceiving himself.”2 So what does the “ostrich” believe?
Experience shows us that events have an inveterate habit of going awry. Based on this observation, endless variants of the famous Murphy’s Law have been devised: nothing is ever so bad that it can’t get worse; the probability of the carpet getting stained is directly proportional to its value; the colour of the traffic light depends on the driver’s urgency: green for a relaxed outing and red in the event of running late.
However, these conclusions are the result of what is called, in logic, the dialectic of insufficient enumeration or, depending on the modality, converted accident. They are the fruit of hasty observations: we only notice that the traffic light is red when we are in a hurry…
The real conclusion behind all this is that suffering is part of this life, and the labour one undertakes to escape it is futile. The Chinese proverb says it well: “He who fears to suffer, suffers from fear.” Or, as Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira once said: “The life with the most suffering is that of he who flees from suffering.” Then, if escape is not possible, the tactic of the ostrich, who prefers to close its eyes to reality, is employed.
In the case of the optimist, the system is to think that adversity does not exist, or is very easily overcome: if you ignore it, it will go away. The pessimist does not delude himself so blatantly; he realizes that it is impossible to escape crosses. His mistake, however, is in taking them for an insurmountable evil, which an omnipotent “executioner” called the Creator has imposed on us to make our lives bitter. He forgets that the cross is a proof of the love of Providence and that “to them that love God, all” – all! – “things work together unto good” (Rom 8:28).
Ultimately, the problem that leads to both extremes is one and the same: excessive concern for oneself, one’s problems and one’s well-being. In other words, egoism.
Consulting the life’s teacher
These two lies of egoism, which in the small activities of daily life can even seem humorous, are in fact extremely dangerous, especially when transposed to the large scale of world events. Our friend history, whom Cicero called magistra vitæ – life’s teacher – proves this with an example taken from one of its most browsed pages: the prelude to the Second World War.
It is the year 1938. Hitler, backed by Mussolini, proposes to invade Czech territory. Obliged by an old pact with the then Czechoslovakia, France and England decide to support the threatened ally. World war is imminent. The Führer promises the prime ministers of both Allied nations, Daladier and Chamberlain, that he will not invade Poland if they accept the annexation of the Sudetenland to the German Reich. Deluded into thinking on the one hand that the Nazi will honour his word, and terrified on the other in the face of German war power, the premiers of France and England sign the agreement.
Whether out of optimism or pessimism, Chamberlain and Daladier acted like true ostriches: to save their own skins, they capitulated, refusing to come to the aid of a free, friendly and, above all, needy nation. What was the result?
When Churchill, the old fox – for he had already crossed the threshold of old age when he began the great odyssey of his life – learned of what had happened, he pronounced a stinging verdict: “You were given the choice between war and dishonour; you chose dishonour and you will have war.” Indeed, months later the Germans were advancing on the rest of Czechoslovakia and subsequently invaded Poland, initiating the war…
Finally, the solution
Dear reader, having outlined the evil, we present the cure, which is very simple: for imbalance, balance.
What is the equilibrium point in man’s moral structure? It is not one; there are four and they are called cardinal virtues. Temperance: it is found in those who analyse reality without agitation and therefore see it as it is. Fortitude: makes one face up to the circumstances that have arisen. Prudence: dictates the rules for acting according to reason and facts. Justice: defends the truth, does not lie either to self or to others, and gives things their due value. Let us briefly summarize it: the solution is the practice of virtue and the love of truth, that is, of God. ◊
1 HELLO, Ernest. O homem: a vida, a ciência e a arte. Campinas: Ecclesiæ, 2015, p.246.
2 ST. AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO. Confessions. L.X, c.23, n.34. London: Penguin Classics, 1966, p.229-230.