Cynicism is a powerful anesthetic we use to numb ourselves to pain, but which also, by its nature, numbs us to truth and joy. Grief is healthy. Even anger can be healthy. But numbing ourselves with cynicism in an effort to avoid feeling those things is not. When I write off all evangelicals as hateful and ignorant, I am numbing myself with cynicism. When I jeer at their foibles, I am numbing myself with cynicism.
When I roll my eyes and fold my arms and say, “Well, I know God can’t be present over there,” I am numbing myself with cynicism. And I am missing out. I am missing out on a God who surprises us by showing up where we don’t think God belongs. I am missing out on a God whose grace I need just as desperately, just as innately as the lady who dropped her child sponsorship in a protest against gay marriage.
Cynicism may help us create simpler storylines with good guys and bad guys, but it doesn’t make us any better at telling the truth, which is that most of us are a frightening mix of good and evil, sinner and saint.
– Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday
It is only the cynic who claims “to speak the truth” at all times and in all places to all men in the same way, but who, in fact, displays nothing but a lifeless image of the truth. He dons the halo of the fanatical devotee of truth who can make no allowance for human weaknesses; but, in fact, he is destroying the living truth between men. He wounds shame, desecrates mystery, breaks confidence, betrays the community in which he lives, and laughs arrogantly at the devastation he has wrought and at the human weakness which “cannot bear the truth.” He says truth is destructive and demands its victims, and he feels like a god above these feeble creatures and does not know that he is serving Satan.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
It is hopeless to try to disprove cynicism; there will always be an abundance of vivid examples to back up a catastrophic interpretation of humanity. But what identifies people as cynics is not so much what they claim – as why they do so. Their downbeat assessments are based not on dispassionate analyses of our species but on an inner emotional compulsion. Their philosophy is, first and foremost, a defense against suffering.
Beneath their gruff surface, cynics are afflicted by a near-hysterical fragility around the idea of expecting anything which turns out to be less impressive than they’d hoped. And so they twist their mental apparatus to secure themselves against the eventuality of any discouragement. They disappoint themselves before the world can ever do it for them at a time and in a manner of its own choosing.
Cynics may look like people trying very hard to see the facts as they are; in fact, they are trying even harder to insulate themselves against pain. The origin of their stance is not worldly experience and insight; it is – rather more poignantly – psychological trauma. Somewhere in the past, there will probably have been a blow to their hopes that felt too powerful to handle. Sadly though, cynics don’t give away the slightest clue as to their touching and vulnerable backstories. They will instead talk stridently about corruption and manipulation; pile up ample examples of greed and proffer complex-sounding theories around economics. But what they won’t do is voluntarily or easily reveal how their father humiliated them when he was drunk or how it felt when their mother ran away to another city when they were five. The cynic is never truly and completely cynical. They are still recovering from hopes that grew too painful to avow.
People committed to the second kind of cynicism get nervous when they see good people act in admirable ways. It threatens them. They immediately seek reassurance by trying to suss out nefarious underlying motives. When that fails, they’ll make some up. When pressed on the fabrications, they’ll double down. As annoying and even destructive as that can be, there’s a logic to it. If some people are capable of doing good, at least sometimes, then it’s possible that their cynicism is both selfish and factually wrong. The implications of that are devastating. Worldviews, when threatened, fight back.
Some threats are real. They can be beaten, but only if people can get past their cynicism and take the risk of actually trying to make things better. Not perfect, just better. That means taking the risks of trusting people, of giving up easy certainties, and of stepping into roles that may feel awkward or even scary. It often means accepting only partial victories. It’s one thing to say that gun control won’t stop all violence; it’s another to say that therefore it isn’t even worth trying. It’s one thing to say that the poor shall always be with you; it’s another to deliberately create more of them as a matter of policy and then congratulate ourselves on making tough decisions.
Improvement is partial, uneven, and hard. It requires effort. It requires accepting the possibility that the way things are right now isn’t the way they have to be. It requires accepting the possibility that people can be more than metabolisms with feet. The world was built by people who actually tried.
When cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas. Cynicism means your automatic answer becomes “No.” Cynicism means you presume everything will end in disappointment.
And this is, ultimately, why anyone becomes cynical. Because they are scared of disappointment. Because they are scared someone will take advantage of them. Because they are fearful their innocence will be used against them — that when they run around gleefully trying to cram the whole world in their mouth, someone will try to poison them.
-Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl
Habitual cynicism in others is a learned behavior. Cynicism becomes a habit because that person feels comfortable and safe with a wall up, constantly ready to assume the worst in every person and every situation. They feel safe being able to put themselves in a position to advocate for their own righteousness while they scrutinize the flaws and shortcomings of everything and everyone around them.
Habits are hard to break. They become habits for a reason. Things like habitual cynicism are behaviors people have to want to unlearn, and bringing up this problem to this person will more likely offend them than cause them to examine their behavior.
A cynic will never be fully willing to assume that someone else is correct to be optimistic or positive. A cynic will constantly tell you your optimism is ignorance, and the world doesn’t work like that. A cynic adopts these attitudes because they also take up this rhetoric with themselves. Every failure should have been predicted. Every success pales next to everything that is wrong. A cynic will avoid paying attention to what can work, what will work, or what does work. Cynicism comes from lack of self belief, and if you let it, a cynical person can wear you down.
Cynicism is part of a defensive posture we take to protect ourselves. It’s typically triggered when we feel hurt by or angry at something, and instead of dealing with those emotions directly, we allow them to fester and skew our outlook. When we grow cynical toward one thing in our lives, we may slowly start to turn on everything.
…Many of our cynical emotions arise when we are feeling vulnerable. In moments when we are feeling open and are let down, we are far more likely to react by toughening up and becoming defensive. A heightened susceptibility to cynicism can be a sure sign that we’re turned on ourselves. When we enter this state of mind, we are often viewing those around us through the same critical filter through which we see ourselves. This “critical inner voice” is frequently directed at us, telling us we are not good enough or that we are not going to fit in. Yet, the harsh judgment of this inner critic can easily be projected outward onto the people around us. We may start seeing anyone from our closest friend to a distant relative solely for their flaws and fail to have compassion for their own struggles and distractions.
To be cynical may seem to some like the ‘smart’ choice, but it is not the courageous one.
It takes real courage to have hope in the face of a hopeless situation, and maintain trust in humanity when the good is hard to find. In reality, it takes very little to throw our hands up at all that is bad and declare it so. That is easy work, compared to seeing the bad and persevering in order to make some positive change. Cynicism is a defensive coping mechanism. We attempt to pre-empt any difficulties or sufferings we may have to experience in the hope that it may hurt less. But in declaring everyone untrustworthy and everything hopeless, we are making certain that it will be so. It would be wiser to see the world, warts and all, and strive to find a place for trust, belief and hope. Creating light where it is dark.
Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.