Do we have a cynicism problem - part 1

Posted by Craig Borlase on 1 April 2013

‘Cynicism: an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others.’ [American Heritage Dictionary]

I am a cynic. That quote up there describes me, defines me, hauling up to the surface the uncomfortable truth which I’d rather people didn’t know about me. Much as it makes me itch to admit it, I’ve spent much of my adult life dosed up on scorn or suppressed by jaded negativity. I’ve been let down and disappointed by enough people who should have known better for my defences to have become automatic and my internal narrator to adopt a critical, suspicious tone of voice. I’m a cynic and, in other words, I’m pretty normal.
I am a Christian too. That quote up there may well have me neatly boxed in, but there’s a whole load of me – a whole load of what I’d like to be, what I believe I can be – that doesn’t get covered by the above. My faith comes pre-packed with what seem like the polar opposites to cynicism: the pursuit of idealism and the need for trust. I believe in the importance of both of them, I celebrate and crave more of each within my life. Deep within me there is a little boy leaning back from the edge of a cliff, gradually feeding the rope through his hands, learning to trust the anchor, the father, the God on the other end. And, like the other 2.1 billion believers around the world, when I die, I believe I’m going to heaven. I’m a Christian. In other words, I’m pretty normal.
I have a friend called Steve. He’s a medical doctor now, and he’s always had something of the mad professor about him. We were all away together for the weekend and I remember him telling me all about quantum field theory with typical enthusiasm and focus. As the wine and food he had been consuming left his unsteady grip and gave in to gravity, he and his wife carried on as usual. Sue sponged down his trousers while Steve told me about how this particular area of physics explored the ways in which particles behave.

“They’re both/and,” he explained, eyebrows vaulting the tops of his spectacles. “They’re not defined until the very moment of determination.”

The paradox was clear, even if the physics was a little hazy. There was Steve, massively intelligent and utterly chaotic, just like the particles he was attempting to describe. I never did get my head around the theory, but there’s something about the idea of a pair of opposites both being true that underpins how I feel about being both a cynic and a Christian. You see, if I’m honest, I don’t see my cynicism as something that’s wholly wrong or unhealthy. In fact, there are parts of it I’m truly grateful for, parts of my disbelief that have enhanced and improved my faith beyond measure. Please don’t misunderstand me, much of it has sold me short and left me lonely, fearful and bitter, but I can’t trash it entirely. I just can’t do it.
Cynicism does not deal solely in extremes. There’s a whole load in between the good and bad camps that has to be explored, from seeing in a similar vein to temptation (not a sin in itself, but a trip wire that so often leads to our transgression) to holding it close to our hearts alongside its twin sister prophecy (the both of them dealing in truth and revelation). Confusing, confounding or just plain odd as it might seem, cynicism is simply not a black and white issue.
So here’s the question; can we be Christians as well as cynics? Can we hold what seem like two contradictory points of view within us without shorting out the circuits? Can we trust as well as ask questions? Is there such thing as a wise idealist, an eternally minded realist or a passionate follower of Christ who refuses to let their integrity be drowned in a sea of self-serving religion?

A better definition
So we’ve started here with the assumption that cynicism is this; an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity that focuses on its general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others. I suppose it’s done well enough to get us this far, but here’s where we part company. There’s more to cynicism than this, both in terms how it harms and helps us.
As an attitude cynicism can be all pervasive. It can overwhelm and override its host. Relationships – whether romantic or platonic, spiritual or temporal – can become wrecks upon the rocks of doubt and suspicion, and the failure to trust in the love of another shares the same genes with the struggles that many have with the idea of faith. From politics to parents, cynicism can take root and dominate our every thought.
It can also be an additive, a quality mixer that neatly combines with a whole manner of alternative emotions and failings. Not content with finding fault with someone or something else, I’ve often chosen to add in a little gossip or bitterness. Cynicism has become like a crusade for me, propelling me to convert others to my point of view. The irony in it all is heavy: so often we are disgruntled by the way in which people abuse their authority and seek power for themselves, yet we are guilty of the same sin when we lambaste others with our venom and vitriol.
But cynicism can be something else, an antidote to a series of failings that continue to plague us. There’s something healthy about the habit of responding with questions that probe for truth instead of swallowing the sales pitch so long as the suit who delivered it was well tailored. Or the voice that speaks out against self-interest and power games, surely that sort of allergic reaction is to be encouraged? Where’s the jaded negativity in the lone individual standing up against an oppressive regime that tries to hide truth with propaganda? Like the lone protestor halting the advance of tanks in Tiananmen Square at the end of the 1980s, the cynic has power. Real power. And real responsibility.
So what is cynicism - an affliction or a blessing? Is it bolted to the tracks that will lead the bearer to ultimate emancipation or will it leave us lost and lonely in the half-light of dusk? Can it be both these things at the same time, or do we have to find a third way between the two extremes? And besides all this, just how deep does the rabbit hole go? Where do we see it around us?

A clearer view
I hate to quote a film like Jerry Maguire – something to do with being disillusioned with mainstream cinema, no doubt - but I can’t get it out of my head. “We live in cynical times,” narrates Mr Cruise at the start of the flick, and I’m wondering whether he’s right or wrong.
It’s true that there is a lot of it about. It doesn’t take an expert in forensics to spot the tell tale signs of cynicism’s fingerprints all around us; they’re there in the rising divorce rates, the falling church attendance, the drop in voter turnout and hike in disaffected youth. If religion is the opiate of the masses then cynicism is the dubious cocktail on offer at the party at which you never quite felt at ease. Part depressant, part amphetamine, cynicism toys with us, dragging us down towards apathy at the state of things, only to get us going and wind us up as we rage at the world around us. The advance of multinationals, the failures of big government, the self-interest of the super-rich and the blind eyes and deaf ears of those who refuse to help the victim who has nothing to offer in return, they all raise our pulse. Cynicism is our fuel and our fool, the needle that pricks the conscience and the broken pipe that gases us with apathy. I hope it is here in the air in this room or on this train or in this park as you read these words, causing you to question and probe and wonder and disagree. It may have got the better of you already and urged you to give up on such an idealist piece of crap that would suggest that life is eternal or that faith has a place for us today. I hope it hasn’t got the better of you, but I could be wrong.
We mustn’t be fooled into thinking that cynicism is anything new. Throughout the ages it has been a player, at times dominant and mainstream as it is today, at others an underground, subversive force much like it was when it all began. There are two versions of the birth of cynicism, both coming from ancient Greek society. One story has it that the name was given to the group who followed a certain number of philosophers who happened to be intent on pursuing virtue and happiness. They were so keen on these goals that they lived like dogs; rejecting hygiene, money, family and relationships.

I prefer the other story. It goes back to a specific time (the fourth century BC) and a specific person (Antisthenes). He founded the Cynic School having been impressed by the teachings of Socrates. The master had taught that what he considered the naked truth was unattainable. He felt convinced that virtue and goodness must be worked for and earned rather than merely plucked from the tree at our whim. Anthistenes was extreme in his interpretation of Socrates’ teaching and chose to reject all unnecessarily civilised luxuries, opting to live in harmony with nature instead. Along with his followers, Anthistenes rejected all social conventions, customs and laws, making them an object of scorn and ridicule among the majority of Greek society society. And while this last bit’s up for debate, there are some who suggest that the name cynic actually comes from the Greek word ‘kynikos’ which means "dog-like." Members of the school apparently hung out on the streets like a pack of dogs ridiculing the pretentious men and women who passed them by.
Since then the pursuit of truth at the expense of self-indulgent materialism has been revolutionary. You could argue that Christ shared much of this approach, and all the world’s major religions have elements of self-denial at their core. And as for those who hold on to the less virtuous side of the affair, one need only look as far as Shakespeare to find four hundred year old examples of cynics whose scorn and distrust leave behind them a catastrophic trail. Great schemers like Iago and Edmund are condemned for their art while Hamlet’s fatal flaw of idealism leads him to his death at the end of an epic bloodbath.
It’s nothing new. Yet today we seem to struggle with it so much. I suppose I think of myself as a recovering cynic. I can’t tell you how long I’ve been off the hard stuff, but I know that most weeks I’m tempted to go back to my old ways. For years I could be found sitting in church, listening to the preacher deliver the message, writhing inside whenever I heard something that I disagreed with. (Which happened quite a lot until I moved churches. More of that later.) Maybe I’m just an over-opinionated, egotistical fool, but so often I’m left trying to resist the temptation to discount absolutely everything that I hear from people whose opinions differ from my own.
I see it in other, less obvious ways too. It’s there when I retreat from relationships, there when I’m fearful of getting hurt, there when I’m critical and hurt and lonely and all those things. And it’s there when I want to take a stand against self-interest, when I refuse to accept the norm, there when I’m feeling my faith rise and my path clear. In short, cynicism is a part of me, part of my attitude, outlook and ambitions. It is the worst and the best of who I am.

What next?
So don’t these two opposing forces just cancel each other out? Shouldn’t we just be left to carry on as it has for millennia, with each of us pinballing between life’s realities? Why bother trying to fix something that’s not broken, something that simply is?
Try as I might I just can’t see it that way. I can’t let negative cynicism get the better of me, and I don’t believe that we should. Faith – our Christian faith inspired by the selfless sacrifice of Christ in payment for our sins – demands that we confront sin. Draconian and Victorian and frumpy as it may sound, so much of my cynicism leads me into the kind of behaviour that can only be termed sinful.
Just as I can’t accept that life has to be marked by bitterness and retreat and fear, so too can I not accept that I should have to disengage my brain the minute I become a Christian. I see no conflict between obedience to God and the mindset that questions what’s wrong with the world around us, no confusion between kneeling at the altar and quizzing what comes from the pulpit. God made us responsible for our actions and united in our work and worship. Where’s the bit in the Bible where we’re supposed to become mindless automatons that meekly consume whatever is placed before us? Where’s the commandment that urges us to turn a blind eye to injustice and oppression? Where are told to not care about the world around us?
Cynicism may cover ”scornful or jaded negativity… general distrust” but it goes further than that. It is both positive and negative, a truly quantum phenomenon for our times, a postmodern conundrum for each of us to consider. Why do we need this book? I can only answer for myself, but if you really want to know the response I have is as gut-churningly idealistic as this: I want to be a part of something that changes the world and I think cynicism might just be one of the missing pieces. If we can just get the combination right, if we can just sort out the negatives and harness the positives we might just be into something truly profound, something with true potential.
Does that all sound too much? Is it hard to take seriously? Yes, I think I agree too. But, you know what, isn’t it worth a shot? Isn’t it about time we put all this energy and passion and intellect and integrity and questioning and everything else we have that makes us US right now to good use? Isn’t it about time we let ourselves believe in the power of testing and trusting in what truly matters in life? Could this be our time to find out whether things can be different?

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