Thursday, October 01, 2015

Cynicism Keeps Hope Alive

So, last night I took a few minutes to listen to my college roommate preach at our alma mater. His introduction talked a lot about cynicism and hope. He used the example of Debbie Downer, a Rachel Dratch SNL character he's been known to enjoy. He's also been known to associate her with me, enough that I was legitimately worried I'd come up in the sermon (I didn't). It did start hitting a bit close to home, though, especially as he defined cynicism (he might have quoted the dictionary) as something like "the belief that all human actions are fueled by selfishness."

At first I wanted to be upset (even though, it should be pointed out, there was no direct or indirect condemnation of me, that was all in my head), but I just couldn't muster it. I'm not embarrassed by my cynicism. Maybe I should be (at least my brain thinks that might be true), but I'm not. I don't have a heavy conscience over it and I could (and will - keep reading) defend it.*

That whole process took a very short amount of time to work its way through my nervous system and psyche, mostly shaped by his explanation of cynicism and hope as opposites. If cynicism sees the world shaped by selfishness, hope is the belief that things don't (and won't) always have to be this way. Hope sees the truly selfless moments that do exist as speaking to some greater truth about the world, while cynicism sees these moments as anomalies.

I am certainly a cynic, absolutely. I think it's a realistic was of looking at the world around us. People are, in fact, pretty selfish, myself included, most of the time.

I am also (or at least try to be) a person of hope. I have a strong belief in the ultimate consummation of the world - that this world, birthed and nurtured in love, will eventually find the fulfillment of that love in the end. I've dedicated my life to that notion. So even if (and I do agree) cynicism and hope are opposites (a really great way of juxtaposing those things, by the way) - they are not mutually exclusive. It's part of the fun in living among the intersection of two worlds.

Christians profess that Jesus Christ changed things - that the world before his life, death, and resurrection was different than the world after. In my view, this doesn't mean there was a total sea change, but rather that the influences dominant in the world have shifted. Selfishness has been overcome by the selfless love of God. Not that it has been defeated, but that it has begun to die. So we live in a world, yes, birthed and nurtured in love, but also sewn with selfishness - and while that love is purging the selfishness from the world, it's power and affect** remains.

We need both, of course. We need hope to sustain us in the midst of despair. We're pretty good about doing that, though. You can google all the pictures of flowers growing up out of sidewalks to get the intimate human connection to hope. But we need the cynicism, too - especially in culture of denial. My comfortable, white, American existence insulates me from a whole lot of the effects of selfishness in the world. I rarely have to see poverty, homelessness, mental illness, or violence (outside of maybe tv), I don't generally have to deal with addiction or hunger or true anguish. My society has constructed itself specifically so I'll forget the ills of the world and be content to consume and be entertained.

That atmosphere kills off hope, but it also kills of the effect of hope. Without real examples of pain hope is less of a motivator. It becomes denuded, inert - at least it can feel like that to me.

That's why I need cynicism. It keeps the emotional receptors alive. Cynicism and hope together build compassion. Too often it seems, our insulated world of complacency removed the ability to feel. When people are confronted with starving children on some unwise commercial appeal, their gut reaction is horror, but their actual reaction is ignorance - we pretend the pain doesn't exist because we're incapable of either cynicism or hope.

Apathy. That might be the real enemy.

It certainly seems to be what I'm afraid of. I've not ever thought about it this way until right now, but it makes sense. I want to keep feeling. I need to feel deeply to maintain hope. It's so easy in this world to give up the notion that things can be better (especially because they're already pretty good for me and most of the people I see everyday). It would be very easy for me to lose hope. So I remain cynical. It's my way of reminding myself that the world in which I culturally occupy isn't the world I physically occupy.

This might not be the best way to accomplish this task, but it is effective. I'm not saying it's right or recommending it to you, but this means does, in fact, serve a very important end. Regardless of what means you pursue it, the end is vitally important. We have to keep feeling - and feeling deeply.^

I appreciate my cynicism. Not all the time, of course. I don't really enjoy being Debbie Downer (although there's something deeply comforting to me in those sketches, which is itself probably worth three years of therapy), but at the same time, I think this healthy*** dose of cynicism, I think, is what helps me see terrorists and child molesters as human beings. Cynicism is, in large part, contrarian. Yes, it's a bit of a downer to see pain in what everyone else sees as joy - but it's kind of a blessing to see love in the midst of communal anger, to see hope when others see selfishness and cynicism.

Of course there are total cynics - people who see despair and greed and selfishness even when everyone else sees those things - but those people are straight nihilists - they might even be insulted by the label "cynic." That's much deeper than Debbie Downer and her ruining of birthday parties and Disney World. That's something completely devoid of hope - although, the cynic in me has managed to keep alive a robust understanding that nothing - no person, no situation, not even that depressing nihilist - is truly devoid of hope.

*It should also be noted that Jeremy took this sermon in a slightly different direction than this post. There's nothing he said that would directly contradict what I'm saying here and this isn't at all a rebuttal. I just got thinking about this because of that. Nothing more.#

**I know "effect" makes more grammatical sense there, but I wanted to emphasize that both the result and influence remains and I wasn't exactly sure how to best communicate that without making the sentence ungainly long - thus a reference only the best theologically trained grammarians might hope to understand.

***Healthy as in robust, not necessarily as life-affirming.

^Incidentally, this is why Lent and Advent are so important - they help us wallow in the reality of our situation, so we can better appreciate the joy and hope of Easter and Christmas.

#That being said, he very well may disagree with what I wrote here, so don't construe the last statement as somehow expecting an endorsement of this post from him.

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