We live in a world where victims of hate, stupidity, ignorance, and greed look up teary-eyed at the media cameras and whimper, "Why me? I never thought this could happen to me." To which the Cynic replies, "Welcome to the real world. It's been around you the whole time."
Cynicism is often the first step out of naivete, it seems. When the young child that's smaller than the others, or maybe talks funny, or has the wrong racial genes, learns that other young children are not the "innocent little angels" that the adults seem to think they are, there is the birth of cynicism. When people who were born into poverty or the wrong race or the wrong gender or the wrong anything realize that they'll probably never be the smiling people with the money and the cars on TV, and will probably never be treated quite the same way, that cynicism grows. Yes, the world in general, and our society in particular, seems to adore the stereotypes: every child gets a present from Santa at Christmas, never mind the non-Christians, the sick, the poor, the homeless; every person has the same opportunities, never mind an Asian President of the U.S. is unthinkable at this time; every neatly-dressed white person out there is at heart a decent, hard-working citizen, unbiased, unprejudiced, rational, and generally "good" --- and anything bad that happens to that person is someone else's fault.
"I suddenly realized (the Presidential candidate) wasn't talking about me," says a disillusioned single mother on TV, and the Cynic stands up to applaud her and denounce her at the same time. She has glimpsed the truth: not everyone fits the societal stereotypes and ideals, such as "married middle-class white couple with children." But she has glimpsed the truth late, and there lies the condemnation. Previously, had she been living in the lie that everyone did fit the stereotypes and ideals? Or did she merely Not Care about those who didn't fit in? "It's not my problem," may have been her previous attitude. It wasn't her problem until it became her problem, and now she only cares because she is the one suffering.
The Cynic laughs at hypocrisy, at the facade of decency that those who have never really suffered use to deceive themselves. The Cynic has seen the ugly side of human nature; the Cynic has suffered personally, and knows that those who pretend such suffering doesn't exist are lying to themselves and turning a blind eye. The Cynic sees the stories of fraud, of greed, of rampant ignorance and stupidity, where the perpetrators mask their true selves with big words about God, Patriotism, Progress, or Capitalism, and are promptly hailed as heroes. The Cynic sees that entire cultures have risen and fallen, that history has often been rewritten by the victors, that cruelty, hatred, bigotry, prejudice, ignorance, hypocrisy, and myopia have been with us practically forever. Yet "pollyannaism" still reigns in society, the vice of people who choose to see only parts of the whole picture and ignore the rest.
The Cynic sees the problems, and longs to change them, but doesn't know how. There's not enough money; there's not enough laws; the lawmakers are fools. Do we choose lumbermen or do we choose the spotted owl? Do we sacrifice education for law enforcement? Do we axe the space program or do we axe welfare? Paper or plastic? Who has the wisdom to know the answers?
And what of any good that somehow manages to occur? What if there is a stunning, shining example of caring that crosses gender stereotypes, racial boundaries, religious lines, or even the vast gap across different species? What about profound new discoveries, or stories of great diligence and selfless behavior? What about even the little daily triumphs of families and people, wealthy and poor, healthy and sick?
"That's nice, but in the long run, it doesn't matter. Everyone dies, and then what use is it?" The Cynic sees that death follows life. Unlike a thrill-seeking teenager who thinks death is something that happens to "someone else," the Cynic grasps the final, inescapable irony, and laughs bitterly at the fools around him. The Cynic feels the overwhelming ocean of meaninglessness all around, and believes that he is helpless to fight it. Death conquers all; even the Universe will end. And so the Cynic, who can see the problems, and who secretly cares about the problems (or why else should he be so bitter?), drowns in helplessness and despair.
"Life's a bitch, then you die" is the Cynic's motto. And that sums it all up, neatly, cleanly, for all eternity. The Cynic has escaped the myopia of pollyannaism, and has found nothing but darkness beyond it.
But is this really the final word? Is Cynicism the logical conclusion for those with the eyes to see that all is not perfect? Maybe, if all that the Cynic has assumed is true. Maybe, if everything dies anyway, and good is ultimately forgotten.
But what if that hypothesis is false? What if, through some unforeseen event, accident, experience or something else entirely, the Cynic gets a hint that he was wrong? That underpinning of pessimism --- Death comes at the End --- is what keeps the Cynic in the depths of despair. What if Death doesn't come at the end? What if we continue after death, essentially immortal, able to look back on our lives and see through our own self-deceits, to see how we really helped others, or really hurt them? What if we could look back and see how much we didn't know, or see how wrong we were?
What if God exists, a perfect God who really does love everyone (not just the Christians who pray on the streetcorners or the TV sets), who shows no gender or racial preference? A God who does not condone nor approve of the crimes on our planet, and yet who does not generally interfere, lest He negate our free will, our right to hurt ourselves if we choose to? A God who is not willing that any should perish?
Indeed, what then?
Then the Cynic, who prides himself on his ability to see the truth that few others see, had better reformulate his thinking.
This is the next step! This is the ladder out of the pessimistic pit of cynicism; this is a gift of truth, of hope, to those who dared to see that things are not as they ought to be. And if the Cynic can accept that hope and climb out of the pit, then he can see everything: not just the bad, but the good as well.
With clearer sight and a higher perspective, the Cynic now sees that true good causes ripples that expand through eternity, and is not wasted. The Cynic now sees that hypocrites, liars, thieves, murderers, and all the people who blinded themselves have a very, very long time in which to see their own vices and their own flaws, and the time to change. People and animals that were helped by others remember those kindnesses, and are thankful. Further, the Cynic discovers, to his delight, that there are others who care, others who also dare to see the darkness and who dare, like him, to say "This is wrong; how can we work together to fix this?" Change, learning, and helping are possible, and real: this the Cynic knows now. And more than that, there is the new and strange hope that Someone out there sees more than even the sharp-eyed Cynic, the hope that Someone out there knows better than the Cynic how to fix the problems, the hope that Someone out there is, in fact, working on getting the problems fixed. Maybe the problems aren't being fixed in a way that's obvious to the Cynic, but there's still that newfound hope that Someone Knows What He's Doing. Someone out there really cares, and really has the power to make that caring work. The Cynic can become a part of that.
Maybe everything isn't meaningless after all!
And so the Cynic sheds the helplessness, seizes hope, and begins to change. For the Cynic has been given the gift of seeing some things as they really are: ugly, dirty, wrong; the Cynic has been given the courage to name those things as evil; and the Cynic has been given the gift of being able to care. Freed now of the lie that is the despair of Death, the Cynic can grow wings that can take him to new heights of hope and caring. All is not meaningless! And, for the first time in the Cynic's experience, there is Someone who has the wisdom to tell him how to make things better, truly. And so the Cynic takes flight, and soars, and works, and rescues.
The Cynic is freed, and is no longer a Cynic.
----Please contact me if you wish to discuss using this text (rei [at] mit[.]edu)----
P.S. As the ex-Cynic looks around, he discovers, to his horror, that his sight had been failing him before. He, who had once realized he was adrift on the sea of suffering, had gone somewhere deeper, darker, and even more hopeless, and had hardly noticed he had fallen. He had fallen to where not even hope or light could reach, and his caring had slowly been turning into something far worse. There, in bitterness, he might have become not just a victim of suffering, but a source of it.
Seeing all this with new understanding, the ex-Cynic remembers to look up, drink in some light, make sure his lifelines are secure, and then plunge back into that darkness to build a ladder for someone else.
P.P.S. Cynic: "a passionate person who doesn't want to be disappointed again": Benjamin Zander
Copyright 1997, 2004 E. Izawa