“You don’t really believe that Rev. Clark has your best interests at heart, do you?” asked the young man, assuming a thoughtful, protective air toward a young woman as they waited for the bus. She had been talking about her recent visit with Rev. Dr. Clark, a minister and trained counselor who has a practice offering spiritual care for those without religious affiliation. “Well … yeah, I thought so. He seemed so nice and very spiritual … and he doesn’t charge that much.” The young man laughed derisively. “You’re so naïve. He just wants your money. That’s all those people ever want.” The young woman replied somewhat urgently, “But I could really use some help and I can’t afford a regular therapist.” Her partner got closer and said, with an air of wisdom: “You just have to help yourself. That’s all there is.” The young woman let out a deep sigh and replied: “Well, maybe you’re right. I won’t see him anymore.”
Cynicism is as powerful a disease as any pandemic, and it is not only prevalent but very contagious. It especially seems to affect young people in these difficult times, but anyone can catch it. In fact, many believe it offers protection, like a vaccine which will keep you from catching something bad like trusting untrustworthy people, institutions, or processes; being fooled; being taken advantage of. As one person recently told me: “Cynicism has its benefits. It keeps you from drinking the Kool-Aid.”
Sometimes cynicism feels like wisdom… Instead, cynicism inspires distrust, despair, and depression.
In fact, cynicism is the opposite. It is quite different from the wise advice Mr. Rogers’ mother gave him, during times of disaster to “Look for the helpers. You can always find people who are helping.” Instead, cynicism inspires distrust, despair, and depression. It is a dangerous attitude which has only a few possible results: one can withdraw and become passive or bitter; one can become justly angry but feel hopeless about doing anything constructive with it; or one can simply focus inward and retreat into one’s own bubble.
Given that we are in an election year, cynicism is especially pernicious because it keeps people from voting, from working for change, from having any hope in the future. Falling into cynicism is akin to succumbing to “psychological warfare.” In World War II, for instance, Tokyo Rose (a moniker for Japanese radio propaganda) urged U.S. soldiers to think about the girls back home and how their lives were being wasted in a seemingly interminable war. The goal in psychological warfare is to defeat the will to resist and to push people into being solely self-concerned. It wants beleaguered people to stop believing they can or should work to rectify the wrongs that are harming them.
Cynicism is especially pernicious in an election year because it keeps people from voting, from working for change, from having any hope in the future.
Of course, there are many reasons to feel distrustful, defeated, worn down, and hopeless in our era. Things do look very bad. People are being hurt. Most of us feel helpless at times. However, cynicism is not new. In every age, life presents plenty of disappointments, crises, and problems. Interestingly, today’s cynicism is entirely different from that of its namesake, the Cynics, a minor Socratic school from the fourth century. Their approach was to aim for wellbeing and happiness through practicing virtue, minimalism, and unconventionality. They were not hopeless or gloomy, but instead felt true happiness came from a more ascetic lifestyle rather than from worldly pleasures, luxury or accumulation. Perhaps today’s cynics should emulate this philosophy rather than accommodating to the negativity so common now.
How else can we combat cynicism today? Many suggest practicing gratitude, mindfulness, searching for the good in life, emulating the more positive people, and even distancing yourself from cynical people. Because cynicism often springs from some prior hurt or disappointment, psychologists often advise cynical people to discover the original fear and deal with it.
Christians, however, sometimes arrive at cynicism by a different path. Rather than being negative, many Christians are idealistic, holding onto the high standards they believe God expects, and that they set for themselves and the Church. When they realize how difficult this is, they can feel disillusioned. In addition, if one comes from a tradition that takes sin seriously, cynicism may result when one does not expect much from fellow believers or the church to begin with. Both of these paths can turn into pessimism, judgmentalism, passivity, and lowered expectations. Cynicism among Christians often masquerades as discernment, which falsely suggests the cynic is wiser than others and sees what others do not. Some believers may even take a certain pleasure in what seems like our society’s downward spiral, figuring that the Rapture, the return of Jesus, or Armageddon is soon on the way. This gives religious cynics, and those who listen to them, an excuse to disengage, to turn away from the world’s real struggles. Instead, they feel righteous in waiting for everything to end, expecting God will rescue them.
Cynicism among Christians often masquerades as discernment, which falsely suggests the cynic is wiser than others and sees what others do not.
None of this is actually what the Bible proclaims. Scripture tells us to stop judging other people (Romans 14:13 ) and not allow a “root of bitterness” to grow inside us, especially because such bitterness actually hurts other people as well as ourselves (Hebrews 12:15). In fact, rather than being “Pollyanna-ish,” Christianity recognizes that people get hurt, often unfairly. That is what happened to Jesus. And even though he recognized the unfairness and blindness of his accusers, he did not withdraw or become bitter and disillusioned. Instead, he encouraged forgiveness. Granted that, for us, this is sometimes an awfully hard virtue to exercise, it is nevertheless a counterintuitive path that can heal both oneself and the offender. But that should not be “cheap forgiveness,” for true reconciliation can only come when the offending party recognizes, repents and reforms his or her ways.
None of this means we are to passively allow ourselves to be taken advantage of. Jesus did advise his followers to “Be wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16). We are meant to fight injustice, care for victims, and work for a better world. This cannot be done if we agree with the cynics that everyone has an ulterior motive or is irredeemably perverse. Instead, the message of the Gospel is that God created us good. While we are all capable of turning toward evil, God does everything possible to redeem us from this predilection. So, rather than being safe and self-protected, full-blown cynics often find they end up unhappy, depressed, passive, bitter, and/or isolated. In this election year, that is the last thing we need.
No matter where our cynicism originates or how we act it out, it will not help us be proactive citizens who work to change the course of history, stop climate destruction, restore jobs, improve the lives of the marginalized, care for the stranger, comfort the bereaved, feed the hungry, or any of the other things Christians are called to do. If we give up hope, if we expect someone else to do it, if we over-rely on leaders, if we see only darkness ahead, if we give in to cynicism, we will simply bring about what we fear or predict. Of course, it is hard to have hope when so many others don’t. But that is what is vital, special, and necessary to being a person of faith. While we’re practicing being non-cynical and hopeful, let’s be open to the surprising ways of God, look for the good, and work for change.
We are meant to fight injustice, care for victims, and work for a better world. This cannot be done if we agree with the cynics.