Cynicism has been a habit of mine for many years, and though at times it feels isolating or suffocating, it has also been a reliable coping mechanism for dealing with the cognitive dissonance of “real” life. Unfortunately, it has also been a hindrance to personal growth and positive social interaction. I’ve decided that this is a good year to move forward and abandon this coping strategy in favor of “hopeful realism”, so wish me well. I’ll need all the help I can get!
What is Cynicism?
Stickler for detail that I am, it seems appropriate to first define what is meant by “cynicism” in modern usage and look at the origin and evolution of the term over time.
While the Wikipedia articles give a more extensive explanation, this definition from the Urban Dictionary covers the origin and contemporary usage succinctly, though crudely (sic):
“Cynicism; (noun); Derived from the Greek word for dog, it first described a current of Ancient Greek philosophy. The cynic ringleader Diogenes of Sinope was described as “Socrates gone mad”. The cynics pursued The Good without minding any other values. This meant they could jerk of at dinner tables, shit in public and live in barrells. Diogenes was said to live ‘”like a dog”, hence the name, cynicism.
Nowadays, cynicism means an attitude in life that is conscious about morally bad or evil acts, but makes a joke out of them or commits them anyway. The cynic is blasé, he thinks everything is stupid or redundant and tends to sigh a lot.
Cynicism is said to be linked to hypocrisy. The hypocrite wants to convince other people of the fact that he is doing the right thing, whereas he knows he is not. The cynic doesn’t want to convince anybody. He is honest to the extreme. His friends tend to describe him as dark, evil, terribly offensive or hilariously funny.“
The last paragraph pretty much describes me. I can have a very dark view of this world as it is, yet often feel compelled to make a joke of my perspective, as well as those with undaunted optimism. (To me, unfailing optimism is not a virtue but detachment from reality, a type of avoidance reaction. There is research that indicates this can be true!)
This dark view also tends to reinforce my natural tendency toward depression, or perhaps this dismal outlook is a symptom of life-long depression. Either way, the world around me often appears rather gray, lifeless, pointless and unreal. Which is why a frequent coping strategy includes detachment and withdrawal, since through my physical sensory input, physical life seems dull and dreary. There always seems to be an unspoken, unseen reality just out of grasp that draws toward something better, yet also mocks existence in this slice of reality that is limited by our physicality.
Religious and spiritual worldviews assert that there is another plane of existence in the spiritual realm that explains why this sense of disconnection exists, which has also been my belief and experience in some degree. Yet there remains for me an indescribable sense that there is a suffocating oppression that eludes our conscious attention and yet demands our unfailing resistance to overcome. This same discomfort remains whether I visit a church, a workplace, or a public event, although in differing degrees. The answers given by institutions and individuals may at times seem to give bits of insights, like puzzle pieces, yet my deepest instincts warn me that we have been given the wrong box top for the puzzle that humanity is collectively trying to solve.
On a side note, the longer Wikipedia articles discuss how Cynicism as a philosophy in ancient Greece has links to early Christian practices, which is interesting. But I digress…
Psychology of Cynicism
There is a body of literature addressing the mental and emotional causes for cynical, sarcastic, “pragmatic” or snarky perspectives on life, and the processes that may help mitigate the underlying issues. You can do the research if so inclined, but one particular article resonated with me since the author is a psychologist who has personally struggled with this habit.
In the article “The Psychodynamics of Cynicism”, Dr. Michael Brader relates his own family experiences and relates these to the development of cynicism within persons and societies. He starts with the observation that children do not instinctively avert their gaze from others until they learn to do so.
What is cynicism, exactly? We talk about it a lot in these pages, but what is its essence? Cynicism, it seems to me, is our attempt to avoid a painful feeling of vulnerability to rejection and to shame. So, in regard to my first question about babies and children, I’d say this: From open-eyed contact to the averted gaze, the course of normal development in our culture involves the gradual acquisition of a shame-based cynicism.
He goes on to explain how shame and fear of vulnerability lead to cynicism in private and public life:
But whether it’s personal or political, cynicism is the best solution that one can come up with to protect oneself from humiliation. Cynicism reflects a natural adaptation to conditions of danger. …cynicism is an attempt to make sense of the world in order to make the best of it and protect yourself from the ever-present dangers of relaxing your guard.
…cynicism … functions as the best personal solution to a social reality experienced as dangerous. It’s rational within the constraints that we perceive around us. I mean constraints such as the reality that we are, in fact, being manipulated and exploited and betrayed all of the time by corporations and politicians. Similarly, it’s rational to respond to repeated rejections or neglect within a family by lowering one’s expectations and by complying with one’s mistreatment. I come unconsciously to agree with the way I’m treated by my parents because they have an awesome authority to define reality and morality for me. Love and caring, awe and admiration, idealism and dependence – all can come to feel potentially embarrassing if displayed too directly or publicly, in a family or in our lives as citizens.
This fear and shame then becomes a habit of self-protection throughout society:
Here’s how I think it works: Words like caring, kindness, meaning, community, sensitivity, connection, love, and even God – when introduced into a political discourse – threaten to remind us of what we long for but have had to give up or suppress. They stir up an appetite, you might say, for these kinds of relationships and experiences. But along with the appetites goes the danger of being foolish and humiliated if we acknowledge and insist on our right to have them. This danger has roots in our childhoods and in our everyday social experience. So we do what psychoanalysis has described so well – we identify with the aggressor and treat our own appetites as if they were once treated by others, and still are treated by others; namely, we reject and devalue them. We attack our own longings as forbidden and dangerous. First we do it to ourselves and then to others. We adopt the voice of the cynical Other: the parent, the media image, the corporation, the politician. Then we’re safe; we don’t have to be vulnerable to humiliation. We’re on the inside, now, adult insiders and not pathetic and naïve children. Then we do it to others. We treat the idealist as a fool, dismiss the language of love as naïve, and mock the politics of meaning as a kind of touchy-feely navel-gazing. We feel safer, restored. Everything is really pretty corrupt. Goodness is a pipe dream. What a relief! What a lonely and depressing relief.
Perhaps this explains why in American society we feel ashamed for simply wanting to be good, do good, and expect good from others; there is a tendency to punish others for what we have not been able to experience for ourselves. Since we do not see how these higher aspirations can be “realistically” achieved, we join in the cynical voices to condemn those who dare to hope for a better world and a better life. This response is remarkably similar to the hazing rituals in fraternities, athletic teams, military units, secret societies, workplaces and even churches. This could also help explain why those with a punitive-based theology tend to be harsh, judgmental and critical of those outside their particular group – both “sinners” and other Christians. If they feel miserable and oppressed by their beliefs, they might want everyone else to share their pain, or maybe they are secretly envious of those outside their group who are happier than they are?
Religious and Spiritual Impact
There are many blog posts, articles and books written about the (potential negative) effects of cynicism on our attitude toward life, our religious or spiritual life, relationships and social life. Probably all of this information is potentially helpful to someone somewhere, some of the time. Since some of the stuff seems so simplistic or condescending, my response tends toward either dismissing it as positive thinking fluff or self-righteous pontificating by someone who has not really dealt with the issue personally. I suppose it is cynical of me to think that way…hmmmm…imagine that.
A few blog posts I came across that were interesting or helpful are listed below. The J.S. Park blog “Breaking Bitterness and Cynicism”  was an answer to a reader’s question – it was fairly straightforward and practical. Others (not listed) seemed to be in the pattern of “shame, blame, and dismiss” rather than dealing honestly with the sentiment and the factors contributing to why it develops. One of the most honest and compassionate pieces was a sermon by Jewish Rabbi Cohen that acknowledges the valid reasons why we might be cynical, yet offers encouragement, forward-looking challenges and a call to personal action.
Rabbi Cohen mentions this, and other articles spell it out in more depth, but there is a valid place for the “healed” or matured cynic in the religious community. Once anger, disillusionment, discouragement and apathy are set aside, the cynic may become the clear-headed critic who can challenge the status quo to point to a higher standards and greater vision for the community.
From my perspective, the main reason that cynicism is harmful to spiritual development, as well as social functioning, is that it often manifests as mistrust, withdrawal, hopelessness, helplessness, apathy and lack of faith in God or others. My attempts at sarcastic gallows humor may not be intended to hurt others’ feelings, but can still be perceived as insensitive or passive-aggressive. For that reason alone, watching my words and moderating their tone seem to be prerequisites for a more kind and caring style of interaction. That is my goal for now. Regaining faith and trust come next…
Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist. (George Carlin)
Probably I’m overly sensitive about this subject because sarcasm, skepticism and cynicism seem to have come rather naturally to me from a very young age, so subjectively these traits feel like a legitimate part of who I am. When reading or hearing a broad-brush judgment that these traits are negative, it feels to me like a personal attack, even when the message was not intended to be an affront, merely a caution or correction.
I suspect many children have a well developed “truth detector” and can sense when adults tell them things that really don’t seem to be true. But due to training to “respect the elders”, they may not speak up about their suspicions immediately. Over time they begin to realize that truth is not actually the virtue that adults pretend it is, since adults bend, fudge or fabricate truths all the time. Some children may pretend to be or truly are naïve, so when this unguarded trust is found to be unwarranted, caution and cynicism are normal reactions. During normal childhood development this transitional stage of disillusionment yields to a greater appreciation of the complexity of social interaction, and the child will try to integrate this lesson learned into a more mature perception of the world. In the teen years and into adulthood years, there is a realization that virtues are not absolutes, but must be tempered with realism and common courtesy. In a sense, cynicism is a part of growing up and seeing the world the way it really is. But to move beyond a negative and dark cynicism, being able to laugh at this crazy world, is also a part of growing up.
However, as an idealistic, yet compliant and fearful child, I was a rigid do-gooder, silently judging others who could not meet the impossible internal standards that I held so tightly, angry and scornful of myself when I did not meet them either. I think at some point I must have made a conscious decision that if the expected impossible standards could not be met by anyone, there was no good reason for me to continue trying. So, the seeds of cynicism were probably planted in the fertile ground of perfectionism and disappointment early on. Over time the inner critical voice gave way, in part, to an anger that turned outward, aimed toward any external authority who demanded compliance in thought or behavior. Of course almost any human structure tries to enforce compliance on members or others in society, and tries to punish non-compliance. That might explain why I have a hard time functioning within groups!
But now that I see the downsides of cynicism, there is a new growth path to explore!
Definitions of Cynicism
- From Wikipedia: “Cynicism (philosophy)” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism_(philosophy) >
- From Wikipedia: “Cynicism (contemporary)” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism_(contemporary) >
- From Urban Dictionary: “Top Definition – Cynicism” <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Cynicism>
Psychological and Religious Perspectives
- “The Psychodynamics of Cynicism” <http://www.michaelbader.com/articles_cynicism.html>
- “On Christian Cynicism” <http://daviddflowers.com/2012/12/04/on-christian-cynicism/>
- “From Cynicism to Hope (Jewish Perspective)” <http://www.congregationsinai.com/rabbi-cohens-sermons/165-from-cynicism-to-hope->
- “Breaking Bitterness and Cynicism” <http://jspark3000.tumblr.com/post/64210043295/breaking-bitterness-and-cynicism>
- “The Post-Cynical Christian” <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-wallis/the-post-cynical-christia_b_3474122.html>