Musings on Cynicism

“That cynic! Well, what do you expect? He always…” Ohhhh. I finally got it. Cynicism. I finally began to understand.

A while ago I began to work on a paper on Cynicism in Central Europe. It has been miserable, mostly because it was a problem I just didn’t understand. I have come to realise that the negativity, pessimism and balkiness that I encounter have roots in cynicism, but cynicism itself was too alien from my own experience, culture and self. Or so I thought. Then, ironically, while slamming another’s behaviour, I began to understand. As I heard my so-superior self define, limit, dismiss and discount this man I was brought up short.I was not only judging and rejecting him, I was crippling and condemning myself by refusing perspective, or allowing for God’s grace, and by assuming authority and responsibilities that weren’t mine. Cynicism is perilous for how it cripples, limits, obstructs and stops. It does so in cultures and societies, in personal relationships, in the Church, and ourselves.

What follows are a few observations and thoughts on cynicism. I do not claim expertise on the subject.

Cynicism is a particular problem in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe as people strive to recover and form healthy societies. Communism, built on unrealistic and unrealisable dreams, ground cynicism deep into the psyches of the discouraged and disappointed peoples that it beckoned and wooed. It’s stupendous collapse, followed by the struggles of Capitalism, Democracy and the Rule of Law has led to further disappointment, feeding cynicism.

Cynicism can be described by these traits:

· Distrusting and disbelieving attitudes and behaviour

· Distrustful of, often mocking, human sincerity

· Sense of personal superiority; believing that one “sees through”, knowing how things “really are”

· Convinced that what one sees is all there is

· Disbelieving in the validity of ideals

· Challenging motives

· Questioning the possibilities of change, of the good, of hope and of truth

· Disillusionment and surrendering; resignation

· Impassivity, often belligerently so

You rarely come across a jolly cynic.

NOTE: these traits are not the exclusive territory of the cynic; they are common to Man and sometimes appropriate within measure. The cynic, however, has surrendered to and been disabled by this worldview. Cynics see it otherwise.

The cynic is a disappointed idealist. When we are young we are all idealists believing that not only the good but the best is inevitable, seeing the world simplistically: black and white, good and bad. Eventually we come face-to-face with reality. Reality can be a refreshing dash of cold water; but its disappointment can also bruise and hurt. We are fortunate if we have people to help us back to our feet, showing us what happened and how to learn and adapt. Too often, hurt and unhelped, we stall and quit. Instead of understanding that reality is a multifaceted complexity to be approached with care, idealists may react simplistically, stalling, giving in to predilections towards cynicism, romanticism or further idealism.

Fundamentally cynicism and cynics refuse reality. When reality confronts their idealism, and wins, disappointed and bruised, they sit in the dust, eyes averted, giving up. You cannot fall when you’ve laid yourself down. You cannot have your hopes dashed if you have no hopes. You cannot have truth bested if you believe in no truths. Good cannot fail if you do not believe in good. Hurt and disappointed, they seek invulnerability by distrusting and disbelieving, challenging and mocking.

Accepting reality and working with it is not easy. Reality clobbers us all; making adjustments for it can be painstaking and long. It is much easier refusing it or quitting, turning a blind eye. Maturity demands that we come to terms with reality and adapt, pushing on. With each confrontation we have to choose how we react to it. There are no pure cynics. Cynics are, at heart, still idealists. They still want to hope. They still want the better. Eventually their protective resolve falters, being human they will again strive for the ideal and then, again, have to deal with reality.

Reality, often difficult, is the best choice for building a life upon. Reality includes the good and the bad, the variations and degrees, all of the facts and details. Being realistic also means being an open inquirer. This is not being open-minded if being open-minded means being non-judgmental, non-discerning. Open inquiry accepts information, forms premises and hypotheses, which are reconsidered with additional information and facts. Open inquiry must start with the premises that there is truth and there is reality, and that not all of the available information will ever be known. For the Christian there are also additional premises including a loving, caring, involved God; that things are not as they ought to be; that change is not only demanded and needed but possible.

Cynicism balks at and blocks change, improvement and betterment. The cynic, finding it difficult believing in and being involved bettering civil society, instead challenges and ridicules those that do. Cynicism sees little expediency in voting or standing against corruption or poor and failed policies.

The problem of cynicism in the Church is even more profound. The condemnation of cynicism erodes and stymies effective life in the body of Christ. We are not to judge but be discerning; the cynic rejects the discerning search for reality and truth, instead judging motives and the heart. The cynic attempts to usurp the role of the Holy Spirit in reading hearts, motives and intent. The cynic claims omniscience in their belief that they can “see through” what is really what. Cynicism corrodes relationships. Any glimpse that they receive into any heart or situation they conclude is all there is, and spin it negatively when they should themselves be learning, changing, and interceding.

The Christian’s life-long labour of learning to live the life that Christ lived and placed within us, of becoming Christ-like is seen as naďve and “unrealistic” to the cynic. The Christian cynic’s acceptance of their fallenness as the only reality and their choosing not to grow in Christ rejects their role in the body of Christ. We are called to change, endure, labour, and to encourage, edify, and exhort others; cynicism sees no need to, believing these to be hopeless efforts, mocking those that disagree. Cynicism blocks the understanding and belief in the efficacy of prayer, thanksgiving, praise, worship or intercession. Cynicism blocks the willingness to listen and hear, to accept ideas, and the possibilities and means of change and improvement.

Additionally, cynical behaviour drives those that come into contact with it to adopt risk management strategies, further stifling and hurting relationships. And cynicism is contagious. The cynic’s fatalism is an attractive belief during the hard times when hope demands endurance. Parents, teachers, pastors, leaders and peers can pass it on and feed it.

Though not cynical by nature, I now understand that I’m not immune. I’ve been disappointed in people and organisations, and have been tempted to write them off, condemning them to what I’ve seen as being all there is. At times I have not sought perspective and understanding. I have not sought further facts to temper the perceived failure, or to see where my expectations were unrealistic, or to simply accept the reality of messy, lovely, convoluted, sin-infected humanity. I’ve attempted to assume the Lord’s authority and role, passing judgment; I’ve decided what is worthy of forgiveness or not, I’ve claimed omniscience. I’ve rejected my responsibilities in the Body of Christ for loving, forgiveness, encouragement, edification, exhortation, intercession, learning, adaptation and growth. I’ve chosen not-God, I’ve chosen not reality or truth but myself, making my understanding and myself the centre and standard. But I am learning to vigilantly repent and intercede.

For myself, cynicism’s red flags are definitive statements and disparaging comments about people or institution such as:

Whoever is always (lying, exaggerating, promising, negative, etc.)

Whoever always _______.

Whoever never _______.

I am on my guard when motives are assumed to be understood or challenged: “I know what they really meant.”

I am leery when the directives of the Lord or the attempts by people to work out their salvation and follow God are said to be unrealistic, naďve, improbable, impossible, easy, a “cop out”, or a rationalisation.

Now I get to learn not to be cynical about cynics themselves.

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