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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 1, 2003

It's time to rethink belief that pessimism wards off disaster

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By Keiko Ohnuma
Advertiser Staff Writer

I must get it from my mother, this tendency to see catastrophe looming ahead at every turn.

The superstition says that if you don't fret about something terrible happening, it just might happen.

"I should take a moment to wonder whether this plane will land safely — just in case anyone in charge of such things might get the idea I'm growing smug."

You have to show The Boss you know who's in charge, right? And deserve your good fortune by not taking it for granted.

It often dawns on me at such moments that these incantations might not ward off disaster, any more than lucky coins help you hit the jackpot at Vegas. It's more like an insurance policy than a belief or faith.

It's the opposite of faith, actually.

This seed of insincerity, this cynical little doubt guarantees that I will cover my butt by adopting a ceremonial pessimism.

My whole family is pessimistic. It's a culture for us, along with thinking humbly of yourself and Doing the Right Thing. All of this helps ward off certain misfortune.

It still startles me to witness families who act cheerful and optimistic, applauding each other's accomplishments at the dinner table without worrying that they could be struck by lightning.

At our table, by contrast, it was a ritual to ridicule those naively cheerful form letters that some families send at Christmastime, detailing their good fortune. We delighted in coming up with our own version, a litany of failures and shortcomings.

"Don't you have faith?" my boyfriend asks incredulously when I confide my latest nonsensical paranoia.

Of course I do — faith that doom awaits. It was our religion at home, regardless of what it says on the birth certificates.

Meanwhile, there are all kinds of people like him, who shrug off today's potential for catastrophe and get away with it. They speak with confidence and count on help. And nothing terrible happens.

So where did I get this idea anyway, that I am a servant on Plantation Earth? That my job, basically, is to suck up?

Maybe your top-down management system — the kind where someone has to be on the bottom — is not the Lord or Queen of the Universe's style. Superbeings would see through us anyway, with their super X-ray vision.

Maybe there's another reason total ruination has not arrived.

The idea strikes me as dangerously sublime. What if I never again have to meditate on how I will salvage the remains of my shattered existence? If I believed everything would work out for the rest of my long, happy life, there's so much I would have to do — starting now.

But family beliefs, instilled in childhood, die hard. Especially when Mom calls.

Maybe we're not wicked sinners put here on Earth to be someone's loser, I want to tell her. Maybe there's an explanation for the sun rising and setting beyond another day's reprieve.

Think of it, Mom. It could be Lady Luck who has been working for us all this time.

Write to Keiko Ohnuma at kohnuma@honoluluadvertiser.com.