Tuesday, September 9, 2008

On Cynicism

I am on fire! I had two pieces of writing I had to finish before Friday: the weekly lesson I write for our church's Wednesday night classes, and a Sunday School lesson that I was asked to teach this Sunday for a class of adults my parents' age. (I've taught them before, and had a lot of fun, but I tend to think I need to come up with some Deep Thoughts when I teach people twice my age, just so they won't sit there thinking, "Why, this arrogant little twit." But enough about my insecurities.)

I wrote BOTH lessons today while Mr. Blue was in preschool. So the rest of my free time (now that I have some more) for the week is free for other types of writing. Not to mention that I don't have to feel frazzled over the weekend, which will be taken up by Justin's 40th birthday party. I can just focus on the party, knowing I've got something to say that I THINK will interest the class. I love being prepared early.

(Why yes, I WAS the type of student who wrote all her term papers in the first month of class. You may hate me now.)

And I'm going to share part of my lesson with you, because I can't stop thinking about it. It's called "Cynicism Is Not a Spiritual Gift."

I love that title. I got it, and most of the inspiration for my lesson, from a writer named Dave Burchett. So this is not original at all, but I definitely tried to apply it to myself because I have a tendency toward cynicism.

Merriam-Webster.com says that being cynical is being "contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives." Did you catch that first word? Contemptuously. Not only does the cynic distrust other people's nature and motives, he or she isn't very nice about his or her beliefs, either.

The dictionary also says that cynical people are "captious; peevish." Peevish means "perversely obstinate" or "marked by ill-humor" and captious (which I am humbled as an English teacher to admit that I had never heard of before) means "marked by an often ill-natured inclination to stress faults and raise objections."

Simply put, a cynical person can be mean.

Unfortunately, sometimes as we get older, we forget that cynicism is a warped philosophy and that it's not an accurate worldview. I read a T-shirt slogan that reflects this viewpoint: "I'm not cynical. I'm just experienced." While I admit that it's easy to get cynical about human nature, especially in certain contexts (like politics!) when our human flaws such as greed, desire for control, and verbal sniping are on prominent display, I also think that we need to fight against cynicism. Cynicism is the easy way out. Cynicism says, "Look how much the world sucks! I'll just sit here and be snarky about it, because what're you gonna do--people suck and that's all there is to it."

Well, people CAN suck, but that is no reason to opt out and spend all your time cursing the darkness instead of lighting one single...well, you know the rest of the cliche.

Basically, cynicism has all the maturity of a teenager who lives in a perpetual state of existential despair of the hopelessness of life and loathing toward the middle-class capitalist values that represent everything he despises--while living off the money made by the people who have those values. It's basically a pose to cover the fact that the cynic isn't doing anything to make things better. It's always easier to judge rather than help out, you know.

Anyway, the lesson goes on to suggest some ways to combat cynicism toward others who seem to us to be Bad People because they are Different from us (as distinguished from anyone who has actually inflicted harm on us or someone we love, I might add). One important thing is to look in the mirror. There is a person looking out at you who is capable of nearly everything that makes you angry when other people do it. If you are a Christian, this might resonate with you: You and I are the wretch spoken about in the song. It's amazing grace that saves us because the grace needs to be amazing; that's how bad we are, how bad we would be if not for the grace of God. If a person is really trying to follow Christ, they will come to a place where they acknowledge that they are just a messed-up person saved by grace.

Another point I try to remember: I don't know what other people are going through. Stephen Covey, in his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, tells about how he was on a train with a tired-looking man and two small children who were running amok. They were dashing up and down the aisles, hollering at the top of their lungs, making each other cry—you name it. And their father just sat there staring out the window and doing nothing to curb their behavior. Stephen Covey and the other passengers were starting to get really annoyed. They looked at each other and shook their heads and even made exasperated sounds, but the man was in his own world and didn’t take the hint. Finally, Stephen leaned forward and asked as politely as he could (given how irritated he was), “Sir, don’t you think you should control your children a little better?”

The man looked at him with bloodshot eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess I just don’t know how to handle them right now. We just left the hospital where their mother died today.”

What a change in perspective! Sympathy and concern instantly replaced the aggravation. I find that when I try to remember that everybody has problems, and that they are probably doing the best they can at that moment, given what they have to work with, then it is easier for me to cut them some slack. Being compassionate and loving and open-minded is a much happier way to live than being bitter, suspicious, and cynical—believe me.

I think I can stop now, because it probably feels like I told you the whole lesson, even though I didn't. I hope you will join me in choosing to hope, to forgive, to be loving and compassionate rather than angry and cynical. I do believe that each person who chooses to act in a loving way makes the world a better place. And that's a spiritual gift the world could really use.



  1. Oh, that's a really good lesson. My inner cynic just got a wicked smackdown.

    I like that Stephen Covey story. I try always to give people the benefit of the doubt because heaven knows I would like people to do the same for me.

  2. Oh boy. This is one I work on and unfortunately don't make as much progress on as I should. There are a handful of people in my life that I continue to be cynical about in spite of swearing to myself that I will stop. I'm not quite sure how to do that. Generally I'm a good person but these failings really bother me.

  3. Oh My! This post...I love it! I read it so carefully as if I was about to take a test on the words written...

    After that snippet, I'm really going to buy that book! it has been on my mind for some time now...

    I live in a world surrounded by such people, people who CHOOSE to live in misery...I'm glad I'm not too badly influenced...or rather I'm still trying hard to influence them with hope, love and compassion...

  4. I find that when I try to remember that everybody has problems, and that they are probably doing the best they can at that moment, given what they have to work with, then it is easier for me to cut them some slack.

    Just so. One book that has really helped me out with this is Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice. I'm working on an interpretation of that book that argues Jane and Lizzie Bennett together are working out what it means to be "wise as serpents and gentle as doves." Jane's overarching framework for her interpretations of everyone's actions is Christian charity. Lizzie teases her about it, but it is Jane who is right in the end. Reflecting on that has really pushed me to be more charitable in my understanding of other people's motivations.

  5. Good words sweetie! Especially the Stephen Covey part. Often times with the girls we will see someone out and about and try to make up stories about their lives, and sometimes I try to steer the girls in the direction of how we can be compassionate.