Posted by Craig Borlase on 10 June 2014

What is cynicism?

What does negative cynicism look like? (the myth of me)

"If I've learned anything in twenty-nine years, it's that every human being you see in the course of a day has a problem that's sucking up at least 70 percent of his or her radar. My gift—bad choice of words—is that I can look at you, him, her, them, whoever, and tell right away what is keeping them awake at night: money; feelings of insignificance; overwhelming boredom; evil children; job troubles; or perhaps death, in one of its many costumes, perched in the wings. What surprises me about humanity is that in the end such a narrow range of plights defines our moral lives."
-Douglas Coupland, Hey Nostradamus!

Douglas Coupland’s character has got it wrong. There is no narrow range of plights that define our moral lives, no handful of traps into which we fall, no shortlist of issues. Instead there is just one thing which plagues us: arrogance. It strikes me that this is the root of all our problems, a deliberate desire to elevate our own status above that which it ought to be as well as a refusal to give in to the established order of things. I’m not talking about cocky ad executives or precocious playground brats here. The sort of arrogance I have in mind goes far deeper than an over-developed self-esteem. Let me explain…
Just before she went spectacularly insane, the woman who dominated British politics throughout the 1980s said something fascinating. Speaking to a woman’s magazine in 1987 Margaret Thatcher declared that “there is no such thing as society.” She’d had enough of complaints about her government’s failings to support the less advantaged. What was needed, she argued, was independence, a dedication to sorting out one’s own problems rather than hoping for charity from others.
Her words struck a nerve. Some claimed it was evidence of her party’s disregard for those at the wrong end of the social spectrum while others argued that it was simply a manifesto for smaller government that supported rather than dictated family life. In truth what Thatcher said had very little to do with politics or policy. Instead it had everything to do with the most significant shift in society that had taken place in the previous two hundred years: the belief that ‘me’ matters more than ‘us’. The birth of individualism and its emphasis on the importance of human independence and self-reliance has exerted a massive influence on moral, political and social outlooks. From capitalism to libertarianism, post-modernity to political correctness, the belief that the individual carries more weight than the collective has oozed forward with increasing inertia. Take a look around you today; advertising based on the assumption that your spending is directed “because you’re worth it” is just the tip of what is a very large iceberg indeed. How often do we witness the abuse of the concept of civil and human rights so that a particular individual can satiate their appetites? How often do we find entertainment in seeing the demise of an individual who once received our praise as we laugh at their demise instead of uniting in support or responsibility? How often are those of us who find a home in religion criticised for our weakness, lambasted for needing a crutch on which to lean, as if anything less than a life of spiritual solitude and self-reliance is an act of utter failure?
OK, so you get my point, right? But while today’s individualism is the big kid on the block, he’s hardly new in town. Even the creation story revolves around the issue of humankind’s desire to satiate our appetites instead of submitting to authority. And it doesn’t stop there; the whole Bible revolves around the familiar theme of our struggle between us serving God and helping ourselves. From the tower of Babel to Abram’s raised arm over a prostrate Isaac, from Joseph’s early egoism to his later humility, from Samson’s inability to control his desires to Amos’ rebuke to the self-centred hypocrites who worshipped with style and oppressed without guilt. The story carries over into the New Testament, with Christ’s supreme sacrifice the symbolic and literal turning point, the ultimate declaration that “not my will, but yours be done.” The power of those words was enough to revoke death’s credentials and fulfil thousands of years of prophecy.
But what’s all this got to do with cynicism? How does our genetic predilection for selfish living link up with the attitudes of scepticism and distrust? Let me tell you a story…
Way back in time, when I was a spiritually feisty 14 year-old I thought I had it all sorted out. Church was good, the rest of the world bad. I wanted as little to do with non-believing friends as I could get away with and decided that the very best strategy would be for me to soak up my weekends in the company of those who shared my beliefs. I was a classic Christian escapist, going to the extreme of considering that my aim in life ought to be to minimise the risk of infection from those I casually called Hell’s Fodder.
It didn’t last. How could it when I would take unreasonably large amounts of pride in being considered – in my own head at least – unusually spiritual for my age? When I got to pray for people up front or speak to the church about something that had happened on a youth group week away, I’d be high on it for days. I was the last to sit down in worship, the first to raise my hands. I could shake longer than most and had a developing repertoire of sounds I could pull out when it came to speaking in tongues.
I was a fake. A horrible fake. When things faded and I fell out of favour, my time in the spotlight handed over to someone else, I failed to take it as the cue for me to have a look at my motives and ask myself some tough questions. Instead I got bitter. And then angry. And then resentful. Why was I getting shoved to the sidelines? Why was I now being ignored? What was the purpose in being me if I didn’t have a Me shaped message to be telling people?
The inevitable happened, the domino that led to my leaving church, pursuing alternative highs and ending up so low. I was seventeen and in France. It was a student exchange, one designed to help improve my linguistic skills. It did, in a way, as my ego collided with my host family. They were quiet and decidedly unchic. I fancied myself as an Englishman in Paris, all café au lait and filterless cigarettes. I wanted to go to parties and clubs. They told me that I was dangerous and mad. I kind of liked it at first, but then the atmosphere distilled over the following days. I was miserable, really miserable, and turned in my head back to the one source of good feelings that I’d not thought about since arriving in the house.
“Right then God,” I prayed. “I need you to change all this. I need to feel better and I need to feel it now. And by the way, if you don’t do it now I’ll refuse to believe in you ever again.”
I debated whether an amen was necessary at that point, but eventually decided against it. It’s a miracle I was not struck down there and then. I wonder if, like all dumb beings, I must have seemed rather quaint to God back then. As I railed against the eternal forces in the hope of feeling marginally less bored, I must have made someone laugh. At least, I hope I wasn’t taken too seriously.
This is how the beginning of my faith ended. With me, angry, slouching on the floor, blaming God for everything. There was an inverted symmetry to it as I’d spend the preceding years taking all the credit for myself. Why not blame God? It made sense to introduce him to the equation sooner or later.
My cynicism was an inevitable consequence of my individualism. As I sat on the floor the flaw opened up within for me to see. My carefully constructed me-first faith had lasted a while, but it never had any real staying power or sustainability. It was always going to leave me disappointed and feeling as though God had let me down. And why wouldn’t it, when all I ever really believed in was an egocentric reworking of the eternal truths? No wonder my faith deflated around me when, for years all I had done had been to tack Plus Me onto whatever I assumed God was up to: Evangelism [Plus Me], Worship [Plus Me], Getting A Strong Sense Of God Moving In Power [Plus Me]. Seeing faith through a self-focused lens made me the spiritual equivalent of the feudal lord, skimming off the best for myself in a mistaken belief that I mattered that much more than anyone else.
If the story stopped right there then I suppose that the damage could be contained. But this is not just about a character trait that affects those of us with a positive self-image. The links between individualism and cynicism go further than just my set of burnt fingers. They have infected Western society’s default assumptions about the very nature of God. After all, if we are groomed our whole lives to believe that getting what we want, when we want it is more of a right than a privilege, then can we really be trusted to accurately define God?
A couple of weeks ago my brother in law told me what he thought faith was for. It was part of a discussion about God and church and death, and he said something interesting. He said that he really didn’t see the value in faith at all. He said he’s seen people hang all they have on it, place all their hopes in the belief that their faith would see them through. And then they’d all ended up disappointed as the inevitable happened and they found themselves dressed in black and playing a leading part in their loved one’s funeral.
Why should we be at all surprised that faith in God is commonly – and mistakenly - assumed to be something that is primarily of benefit to us? How do people come to any conclusion other than that which sees Christianity as just another customer-focused service sector – albeit one that promises excellent benefits but that seems to be a little lacking in the customer-facing staff. How can we come up with anything other than a Disney God when all we’re ever taught is that our individual needs, individual wants, individual hopes and individual fears are the tracks along which our lives are run? When all we’ve encountered has come with a price tag, a smile and some form of legal protection should the product fail to satisfy, why shouldn’t we construct our image of God as a genie in a lamp whose very existence begins and ends with the service of our agendas? We’ve grown used to being at the centre of the action. Why should we stop now?
Our individualism primes us to reject causes other than our own. Even the non-capitalist, non-consumer follows the same path, approaching with distrust and scepticism the hierarchies that were once accepted without question. If we in turn accept without question individualism’s mantra then how can we hope to be anything other than distrusting of God? How can faith seem to be anything more than a superstitious set of half hopes for the feeble-minded when all that we think we know in life is contradicted by the words we read in the Bible?
It is clear that for the true individualist a disbelief in God appears to be the only available option. Seen through the me-first lens, faith in Christ has the added complication of appearing to be utterly unreliable and contradictory. After all, when a world considers freedom in terms of our opportunities to unburden ourselves from responsibility to others, the idea of finding freedom in following Christ, of liberty being linked to laying down one’s life seems, frankly, odd. The rhetoric of religion fails to match up to our perceived notions of reality. Distrust and doubt are the only apparent options.
Some would argue that this matters not at all. Some would say that this is merely the death knell for God, the age of reason finally getting round to finishing off the myth. Some say it all goes back to the Wizard of Oz, and that this is the time when the mask is removed and the impotence of the fake controller is revealed. I am not one of them. I think this reduction of the glory of God, this chronic misreading of our Lord’s identity matters. A lot. In fact, I think I’d have to say that it’s become a matter of life and death.
While the Wizard of Oz fails to make the grade as a metaphor for God, he serves well enough for us. With all our energy and skill we try to convince a watching world of the extent of our powers, of the security of our souls. We have failed. We have not managed to create a world over which we rule any more than the diminutive pretender was able to conjure up a real heart, real courage or a real brain for those who turned to him for help. Yet just as the wizard’s revelation of his own failings was the making of the man, so too do we face a brighter future once we reveal ourselves for who we truly are.
Cynicism is not all bad - there will be plenty of time to explore its positive outworkings – but we must start with being honest. We must be honest about where we see it and where it has failed us. We must own up to the ways in which we, crouching behind its mask and believing in our own importance over others, have failed those others, failed God, failed ourselves. Maybe Kansas is a long way off, but even if we don’t reach it yet how much better would it be to walk without a mask of jaded negativity, to be free from the burden of having to place ourselves first?
Cynicism has so many masks, not all of them deserve to be ripped down and binned. But this main one that so many of us have on by default must be tackled. We wear it as a result of our isolated individualism, the part of us that says ‘me’ matters more than ‘we’. By giving into the tide that suggests that we simply cannot believe in anything other than that which is of primary benefit to us we’ve wound up in such a terrible state. We must learn to spot and stop these harmful thought patterns.
Don’t worry, this is not a build up to a ‘we are all worthless’ spiel. It’s just a simple call for a little bit of honesty. Honesty that says ‘no’ to the fools gold of individualism. Honesty that turns away from the suggestion that our interests are best served when our noses are deepest in the trough. Honesty that looks up, looks out and longs for something more than selfish living.

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