On the Hidden Dangers of Cynicism

“For better or for worse, I have watched people die in front of me. I see how they are in the end. And they’re not cynical. In the end, they wanna hold somebody’s hand. And that’s real to me.” (Mitch Albom)

Cynicism is an attitude or state of mind which can strike at any time, though it can be more treacherous when it attacks in middle age. Cynicism for a younger generation might be a call to action of some sort, to inspire inward reflection, to instigate political change, and negatively, to espouse anarchy, to become apathetic, or to adopt a scornful way of thinking. For the older person, when it is removed from life experience, it can prove devastating with the passing of the years and with aspirations no longer on their side. In both instances it can lead to ennui, apathy, and despair. What exactly is cynicism then? It is a distrust of people’s motives or the belief that they are generally motivated by self-interest. It has taken on a much nuanced definition since the times of the Ancient Greeks when it was associated with the school of the Cynics [from the Greek kunikos commonly ‘doglike’ or ‘churlish’] characterized for its contempt of ease and pleasure.

For the religious cynicism can be a double temptation, to not only entirely mistrust the social and political infrastructures which surround and support him or her, but also to question the fundamentals of their creed. Revelations and ideals once considered inviolate are now looked upon with a great degree of suspicion if not humour. Disappointment with integral infrastructures and first-hand knowledge of the moral failings of the militant church, only add credence to the cynicism which can threaten the foundations of a life. So what to do when cynicism is no longer a safeguard against naiveté but an ongoing pessimistic disposition? It does help to remember it is part of life and only natural that during certain stages of our growth we will experience a whole range of disappointments or ‘let-downs’ which will hurt. Cynicism and irony during such times could be seen as a defence mechanism or a ‘balm’ to help soften the blow. It is when these attitudes become ongoing states of mind that they grow into hopelessly destructive emotions. We are robbed of interior peace and great lessons of the past are too readily forgotten.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition cynicism is typically considered against the loss of belief (Job 7:14-16) or trying to catch somebody out (Lk 20:20-26). In Buddhism it is often contrasted with equanimity. In the Hindu scriptures cynicism is the source of hatred and anger. In more modern times these expressions can be marvellously summarized in the philosophical words of the American writer and amateur fiddle player Jackson Burnett:

“A thousand years from now nobody is going to know that you or I ever lived. The cynic is right, but lazy. He says ‘You live, you die and nothing you do will ever make a difference.’ But as long as I live, I’m going to be like Beethoven and shake my fist at fate and try to do something for those who live here now and who knows how far into the future that will go. If I accomplish nothing more than making my arm sore, at least I will be satisfied that I have lived.”

Cynicism is especially dangerous for it compels us to lose hope and interest in others. Our heart grows cold and we become overly introspective. To be cynical of someone trying to turn over a new leaf is to be cruel. To dismiss a religion because its followers are less than perfect makes no sense. To patronize a fellow human being because we in some way feel superior to him or her is the height of folly. What is more we risk growing cynical with our very selves which can lead to self-hate. It can damage the spirit which is the animating force behind creativity and love.

So what to do if we are gripped by the negative outcomes of cynicism?

Talk is cheap and ‘easy positivism’ is everywhere accessible. Engagement with the world and giving a helping hand to the ostracized, to help bring about change where change is needed, is not always an easy thing to do. It will very often demand a great deal of sacrifice and on occasion an agonizing re-evaluation of the notion of trust. Cynicism, similarly to ‘bad faith', has at its core an element of self-deception and a refusal to confront alternatives.

Allowing for the benefit of the doubt is to not allow for cynicism to grip our hearts. The encouragement of our neighbour is a great antidote. We are not called by the wisdom literatures of the world to become ‘naive’ to the realities of the human condition nor is it expected of us to abandon sceptical doubt. Unconditional love is to be over and over again forgiving and to continually see the potential which is breathed into the soul of the other. It does not mean to ignore wrongs or turn a blind eye to wickedness. We might also do well to remember how hurtful it was when we ourselves were dismissed and denied the goodwill of our intentions. Social infrastructures as well, might be improved with our considered input and made better through our direct involvement. We will not change the world, but we will surely spread some sunlight and make a real difference to at least a few lives, including our own.

And is that not enough of a good thing and well worth the doing?

“My dear Lord, protect my heart from the hidden dangers of cynicism and allow for me to be a humble yet present doorway for others to pass through. Help me every day to remember, our Father who art in Heaven, that life will not deliver to me all that I want.”

On being rejected by those we love

St Joseph the comely

St Joseph the comely

“I know that when a door closes, it can feel like all doors are closing. A rejection letter can feel like everyone will reject us. But a closed door leads to clarity. It’s really an arrow. Because we cannot go through that door, we will go somewhere else. That somewhere else is your true life.” (Tama J. Kieves)

How good it would be if we were loved by everybody and that everybody we met did see the best in us. But would it really? And would it make us wiser or stronger? Nothing hurts more than to be rejected by someone we love. Nothing hurts more than to have people we treasure turn away from us. This might come in the form of a sudden stop in communication or in other more hostile ways. The grief which is felt can be inexpressible. It is altogether different when we are treated as lowly by those we do not know very well. But it too can hurt, yet it is not the same. There are of course, the extreme and very hard cases, when a parent walks away from a child, or a formerly devoted spouse walks away from their partner. Then there are those great friendships where years have been given over to them and which have been sustained with much grace and plenty of love. The old and trusted friend withdraws his or her hand to walk away. How do we respond? To say that they were not “true” loves or “real” friends in the first place, does little to soften the pain. What can we do?

There are various ways we can come to grips with this awful happening, for we are each gifted with unique experiences and charisms. And it is upon these that we must call upon during such times that we may not become entirely disconsolate. The rejection from a loved one can give validation to our most hidden insecurities and fears. It is the cruellest and most dangerous of all the rejections. Sensitive and tender hearts have often responded too quickly, with catastrophic results. To such difficult questions, where grief and mental torment are involved, there are no easy answers. The confrontation is real and terrible and hurts the bones. Often there are additional issues of perceived shame or guilt. Our identities seem to be taken away from us. Trust is also lost. Our beliefs are shaken to the core.

Though every situation is different, we all share in the human condition and of having some idea of how the “other” might feel during shared experiences, whether physical or mental. If you tell me you thirst, I have understanding. If you tell me your head hurts, I can understand that too. If you tell me you grieve because of a great loss in your life, I also have some comprehension. Though in each case it can only be by degrees, for the experiences and our reflective natures, still remain unique. But there is common ground and it is from here, this solid and proven place, we can be saved and strengthened. The great lessons are not too far away, if only we should endure and search and never, ever lose hope.

There is a higher purpose or reason behind every great love and every heartbreaking betrayal, and both come with their hidden gifts and powerful graces. We would all much prefer the “great love”. But let us also not recoil from the heartbreak. It is good that we persevere and do strong battle knowing that it is only through the fire that steel is hardened. It is first made soft and malleable, to be brought to the ideal place known only to that element, where its properties are encouraged to their full potential. It is through these excruciating losses, which will often enough break an unhealthy cycle of co-dependency, that we can gain profound insights into life. That is, a less cloudy revelation as to the ultimate purpose of our existence; a deeper understanding of the complexities and contradictions of human nature; a more “nuclear” vision to love and forgiveness; another chance at becoming the men and women we were meant to become; the realization of our strength and power of our spirit. The all-important lesson, too, that bitterness and animosity are an enormous waste of time and a loss of valuable energy. “When you have been insulted, cursed, or persecuted by someone,” writes Saint Mark the Ascetic, “do not think of what has happened to you, but of what will come from it, and you will see that your insulter has become the cause of many benefits to you, not only in this age, but in that which is to come.”

These are ways which bring us closer to the sacred, to those things which our collective religious experience has associated with the divine.

Maybe we have given all we can to the “other”. Perhaps it is now time for them to move on, to explore other horizons vital to the unfolding of their own story. Maybe we have been one of those beautiful little tiles of a greater mosaic, little in the bigger scheme of things but enormously crucial. Maybe we have nothing more to give and we have done our job.  We should avoid any thought which might now try to talk us into believing that these people are wicked when only yesterday they were righteous. Of course, all this implies the equality to the relationship, for when an adult hurts or walks away from a child it will call for a different response and a different type of resilience. And yet we know from those who have experienced this dreadful hurt, that this too can be overcome and conquered. Here we can find our peace and turn our pain into a priceless jewel. And though there will be times when the recollection will still hurt and yes, even bludgeon us during the night, it is important to remember: this too, it will pass.

“He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3).

Other doors will open. One of the secrets is to wait, to not force these doors, to allow and to give time for providence to work.

In the Old Testament Joseph was betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers (Gen. 37:18-36). What was worse, they had even thought about killing him. “When Joseph’s brothers saw him coming, they recognized him in the distance. As he approached, they made plans to kill him.” Joseph both endured and he forgave, to rise up to become the second most powerful man in all of Egypt, next to the Pharaoh.

“Dear Father do not allow for me to crumble and break should I ever be rejected by a loved one, do not let for my heart to grow cold that I might not forget that there was much beauty and joy in there too, amidst the sorrow. I want to remember that I was an important part of another’s unfolding story and that my own is not yet over.”