Wisdom And Pessimism Are Starting To Feel Like The Same Thing

Published on 5/9/2024

When I was studying psychology at university, I did a course on developmental psychology. I was more interested in clinical psychology and social psychology, as I’ve never been particularly good with children, but it fit my schedule and seemed interesting enough. I’ll always remember one class in particular, when we discussed the moment children learn about death, and realise people will die. It’s a changing point, an epiphany, that comes with losing a grandparent or a pet usually. Until then, death was reserved for video game characters that return minutes later and names in a newspaper their parents halfheartedly read at the breakfast table. But my professor explained that this was the moment death becomes real to them.

My professor was incorrect, I’ve come to learn. I’m not here to dispute the entire psychological concept, but let’s just say that it doesn’t fit with what I’ve come to know. We think we know the concept of death, but we don’t. It’s an idea as foreign to us as winning the lottery or being born as royalty — I’m still secretly hoping I’ll turn out to be a long-lost princess, but it’s seeming less likely.

We think we know that people die. But we know merely that other people, nameless people, friends of friends of friends die. We don’t yet understand that the people in our life can leave us. We don’t yet understand that we can die. How can you lose player 1 in a game?

This is something we don’t learn until we’re forced to, until death brushes our doorstep.

I feel both too young and too old

In many ways, I feel too young to actually be twenty-seven. I sometimes count the years since 1996, just to be sure that we haven’t made a grave error along the way. Perhaps one year we added one candle too many and just kept up the facade. I’m supposedly a decade into adulting, and yet I still don’t understand the stock market, I still accidentally turn socks pink or shrink clothes, I still feel like I’m committing accidental tax fraud, and I still panic whenever a light flashes on my car dashboard. How can I be an adult when I still have no clue what I’m doing most of the time?

In other ways, I feel far too old to only be twenty-seven. I’ve been struggling with mental illness since the age of fifteen. I feel the effects of my eating disorder on a daily basis despite years of progress. I’ve had to spend over five years in a world without my father. I used to struggle with suicidal thoughts to the extent that twenty-one felt like an impossible age, and then twenty-five, and yet I’m supposed to believe that I’m twenty-seven and still want to be here, still fighting for it.

I recognise that I’ve had a privileged upbringing in more ways than I can count, and I would never dispel that. But the last years haven’t been easy in relative terms, and things took a turn for the worse when my stepfather was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer in December. It felt like I had finally found solid ground since the loss of my father, only to have the rug pulled out from me again like a failed magic trick.

“I can’t believe this is happening to you again,” one of my friends told me.

But I could. Naturally, I was shocked that my perfectly healthy stepfather was suddenly given the worst news we could’ve imagined. I hadn’t expected anything to happen to him, but in a way, I’d spent the last years of my life always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I no longer trusted happiness, if I ever did, and instead saw that as temporary, and pain as the constant.

Wisdom or pessimism

Life was beginning to feel like a series of unfortunate events, punctuated by brief moments of joy. It felt like my eyes had been opened, as if a cold bucket of water had been doused on me, and I’d forever gaze out of those shivering wide eyes. I started to look around me and wonder if no one else was seeing what I saw. Had I discovered some secret algorithm equivalent to the DeVinci Code? That life=grief+loss+shitty events. Was I the main character in a sci-fi novel where I can see the blaring truth that society willfully ignores? That we all fucking die in the end.

I had become a pessimist. Friends would be shocked to discover this, as I’ve always tended to have a bubbly and excitable energy about me. I’m a musical theatre fan, for God’s sake. But it’s true, I’ve lost that naivety that precedes joy. I no longer believe in things working out or good things being around the corner. My guard is up, and I am spending my life waiting for the other shoe to smack me in the face, yet again. I don’t trust that my mum will be okay, that I can sleep at night knowing nothing will ever happen to my sisters, that hard work always pays off. I don’t believe that life is inherently good anymore, and that feels like a horrible way to live. A missed call is bad news waiting to be told to me. A lack of messages means the worst has happened. Strange symptoms lead to worst-case scenarios in my world.

In recent years, I’ve been told I sound wise by people when I speak about losing my dad. I was the first of my friends to lose a parent, so I think I could’ve said pretty much anything and sounded like I knew what I was talking about. I’ve been told I’m wise beyond my years, maybe because I lost beyond my years. But now I wonder if this so-called wisdom is actually pessimism. Are they just the same thing?

Wisdom is the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment. Maybe the experiences are shitty ones, maybe the knowledge is the fragility of life, and perhaps the good judgement is choosing to still get up each day.

I know I’ll share this article and get concerned messages from loved ones, but this isn’t a cry for help or even a reason for concern, this is the reality I’ve found myself in, and one that I am trying to decipher in the only way I know how. I have become a pessimistic person, and perhaps that is just the fact of the matter. I think wisdom is pessimism, in that you know what’s coming, and yet you don’t run around screaming it like Chicken Little, and you keep getting up. You know life will get worse, so you take pleasure in the pink sunset, the overpriced iced coffee, or the plot twist in the novel you’re reading. You know people can be taken from you too soon, so you don’t bother with the petty feuds, you don’t waste time on fake friends, and you get your priorities in order. You’re not perfect by any means, you still get frustrated when your sister posts an Instagram in your dress, and you spend far too much time on Netflix, but you’re aware of it all.

Life may be a series of bad events, but that’s why we need to relish in the in-between. Happiness is just as temporary as sadness, and both are to be expected in our future. Wisdom, pessimism, two different names for carrying your past with you as you look to the future. There is no limit to bad news, no fill of bad luck that makes you exempt, there is just each day that we’re given.



Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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