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.”

The Benefit of the Doubt

“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations.  It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills” (Buddha).

James J. Tissot's  The Soul of the Penitent Thief in Paradise  (1896)

James J. Tissot's The Soul of the Penitent Thief in Paradise (1896)

Each day we might look for ways to become better and more compassionate people; a smile here, or a little charity there, perhaps even an encouraging letter to a stranger. Every kind and caring deed helps the heart grow softer to become a more suitable vessel for instruction and illumination. There is also the practice of another action, often forgotten, which brings much joy to both the giver and receiver: the giving of the benefit of the doubt. But what does this mean? It is taking someone at their word despite the doubt, that you are willing to put every suspicion aside. You are prepared to pass the advantage to the other, however difficult this may initially seem. It can save a life and build new futures for those to whom this wonderful grace is extended. It is another chance. Might we at times feel we have been misused? Have, we too, not in some ways misused others or at least the gifts we have received from the Creator? Are we that much better? Is this not also one of the great lessons of Christ’s pardon of the penitent thief on the cross? (Lk. 23:32-43) The benefit of the doubt can also be connected to forgiveness. And have we not all, at some stage of our lives, been desperate to hear similar words of release from a loved one or friend. But this giving of the ‘advantage’ must come with no qualification and with strong love that it survives the test of time. Let us always be encouragers, never shut the door, and have nothing to do with the spread of despair. How much aching we not only lift from ourselves by not remaining captive to the poison of suspicion, but also what joy and hidden possibility we could help to set free in the life of others by simply saying, “I do believe in you, and I am truly sorry if I have caused you hurt by the withholding of my trust." Sometimes a wounded soul might wait for years to hear these words that it may once more dance lightly upon the earth and with gladness look forward to the new day. “Oh, Heavenly Father, allow for me to genuinely practise this graceful act of surrendering the advantage to the other, without doubt or the return of suspicion, that I, too, might be the recipient of such a beautiful release.”