In the poem Comus, John Milton asks, “Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud / turn forth her silver lining on the night?” He was deceived. Clouds don’t have linings. What Milton’s narrator saw was the spill of light around the edges of a cloud silhouetted against the moon, making the cloud look as though it were outlined in silver. It wasn’t silver lining, it was silver outlining. Optimists have been looking for silver linings ever since.
In Milton’s poem, Comus is an evil spirit who, disguised as a shepherd, kidnaps an unnamed lady, binds her to a chair, places her under a spell, and tries to make her drink a potion that would turn her into a beast – an early date-rape drink; he even tells her the spell can only be broken by his magic wand! The lady is rescued by her two brothers, with the aid of Sabrina, goddess of the River Severn, who break the spell and chase Comus off. The day is saved, but it’s hard to know what the silver lining was. Milton might have felt that his own dark cloud, his blindness, came with a benefit; it gave him the ability to dwell more in the contemplative life (“They also serve who only stand and wait,” as he wrote in another poem). The point seems to be that for every act of evil there is a balancing force of good (if you believe in river goddesses), that good and evil co-exist in all things – as God and Satan co-exist in Paradise Lost. But that isn’t what the maxim means.
The silver-lining image has become the symbol of baseless optimism. We are to believe, against all evidence, that every bad thing that happens to us has a hidden benefit. If we are fired from our job, we now have more time to spend with our family, or to go for long, meditative walks in nature, or to finish that book we’ve been telling everyone we were going to write when we had time. Confined to our homes by a pandemic, we console ourselves with the thought that at least we are burning less fossil fuel and relearning the value of community.
The phrase became proverbial after 1853, when an American journalist named Fanny Fern invoked it in a column that began: “Every cloud has a silver lining, and He who wove it knows when to turn it out.” Not exactly Milton’s sentiment; it’s closer to the idea Emerson expressed in his essay “Water,” written in 1834, in which he asserted that nature could be both destructive and beautiful at the same time: “The annual formation and destruction of ice within the Arctic Circle,” he wrote, “is a beautiful provision of Nature for mitigating the excessive inequality of temperature.” In other words, don’t just look at the destruction; all that ice up there in Canada isn’t wasted, because it helps keep us cool down here in the U.S. (He was right: the frozen Arctic Ocean once acted as the box freezer at the top of the Earth’s refrigerator, but no longer does so since it is no longer frozen.)
Americans are, or were, insufferable optimists – they even formed an Optimist Club, first in Buffalo, New York, in 1911, from whence it spread, like a virus, around the world; my parents belonged to it. One of its tenets is: Always look on the bright side. My parents bought a lottery ticket every week, always choosing the same number. I’m not sure how much optimism was involved; they were afraid to skip a week in case that was the week their number was drawn. I suppose just holding the ticket in their hand gave them a hit of optimism, even though, every week for more than twenty years, their hope was dashed. If that hope was their silver lining, it was as ephemeral as a cloud.
Both Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens were put off by the obstinate optimism of Americans, seeing in their presumption of improvement, which they called progress, a paradoxical disregard for reality that would eventually lead to their downfall. Paradoxical because the Americans they met insisted they were hard-nosed realists.
Dickens especially was skeptical about this claim. Realists, he argued, were governed by reason and facts, whereas Americans were invariably swayed by dogma and opinion: “Any man who attains a high place among you,” he wrote at the end of his six-month visit to the United States in 1842, “from the President downwards, may date his downfall from that moment; for any printed lie that any notorious villain pens, although it militate directly against the character and conduct of a life, appeals at once to your distrust, and is believed.” What silver lining did Fanny Fern see in that, I wonder? Higher newspaper sales?
Cognitive psychologists call an unwarranted belief in one’s own immunity an “optimism bias.” They find it in people who believe that car accidents happen to others because, unlike themselves, other people are bad drivers. Or that smoking might cause cancer in people who are predisposed to cancer, but they are somehow exempt. I was with a friend once who, when he bought a package of cigarettes, read the printed warning, “May be harmful or dangerous to pregnant women” – and said to me as he lit up, “Good thing I’m not pregnant.” And who now has lung cancer.
“Sometimes,” writes Robert Leahy, a psychologist and author of The Worry Cure, “optimism can kill you.” People with bipolar personality disorders, for example, often exhibit “maladaptive positivity characterized by greater risk taking.” They over-estimate their own ability to deal with real difficulties, exaggerate the likelihood of possible gains, underestimate costs, and convince themselves that possibly illusive future benefits are both more desirable and more easily attainable than they statistically are. Leahy calls such thinking “the portfolio model of mania,” likening it to people who think they can manage their own investment portfolios better than the experts, or that they can manage their medication better than their doctors.
The notion that all clouds have silver linings is behind the self-serving assertions about global warming we hear coming from people who, though not actual climate-change deniers, believe that rising global temperatures may have disastrous effects in some parts of the world, but a warmer climate may bestow advantages on others parts, e.g. the parts they live in. Hence Donald Trump, campaigning in northern New England in midwinter, tweeted: “If this is global warming, bring it on!” He, too, was deceived. First of all, cold weather in New England in January is weather, not climate. Second, accepting a more benign climate in one region condemns other regions to climactic disaster. When optimists claim that earlier and longer growing seasons in northern regions will benefit farmers, or that an open polar sea will allow more shipping through the Northwest and Northeast passages, or that increased plankton growth in the North Pacific will absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they show not only a shocking ignorance of science, but also a selfish disregard for the sufferings of the millions of humans who live in equatorial regions, or below sea level, or without adequate drinking water.
In 2007, Dennis Avery, a senior fellow at the climate-change-denying Hudson Institute, published documents claiming that, for instance, human-created atmospheric carbon levels “were irrelevant to global warming,” because climate change is a naturally recurring phenomenon, and, besides, there has been no significant global temperature rise since 1940. Avery also presented “scientific evidence” that in the past 80 years, this global warming trend that doesn’t exist has had beneficial effects on forest growth, coral renewal, and bird and butterfly migration. He sounds like Trump simultaneously asserting there is no coronavirus, that the coronavirus that doesn’t exist came from China, that his administration handled the nonexistent threat extremely well, considering that the Obama administration failed to see it coming, and that ultimately the danger will go away by itself: “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
In a recent letter to the editor of the Globe and Mail, a writer noted that he believes “COVID-19 has lifted the curtain on how ruinous our capitalist system has been.” As an example, he cites “the high death rates in for-profit long-term care homes. The pandemic’s silver lining is showing us a new way to move forward.” Is it me, or is looking for the plus side of the deaths of 400,000 people a particularly gruesome way to express a not-very-original opinion about capitalism? And has the pandemic shown us a way to move forward, or has it merely underscored how neglectful we’ve been in the past?
I’m not a pessimist. I’m not saying that every silver lining has a cloud. I occasionally indulge in cautious optimism. But I don’t buy lottery tickets: my motto is, You can’t lose if you don’t buy a ticket. I’m like Annie Dillard, who, in For the Time Being, writes: “The world is as glorious as ever, and exalting, but for credibility’s sake let’s start with the bad news.”