Rejecting Cynicism

Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what the heck is really going on.”    -Mike Royko

In case you missed it, dire things happen in this world.

Violence erupts. Racism and sexism have not been eradicated. Neither have the measles or Ebola. People, both famous and otherwise, meet untimely deaths. George Clooney gets married. The globe warms and species disappear.

Last week in the Twin Cities, a six year old died of apparent suicide.

We respond with tears. With protest. With disbelief. With #activism.

We move on.

We might stop seeking out the news. If we don’t know what is going on, it can’t bring us down, right?

Sometimes we become radicalized, hyper vigilant and active.

But more often we become desensitized, somnolent and apathetic.

More often, we resort to snark and sarcasm and the uber-cynicism of our times.

What did you think about when you were six?

I thought about putting on puppet shows for the neighborhood. About playing school with my siblings; about pixies, Peter Pan, and Play Doh. About marching in a kid’s parade on the 4th of July. About lilacs and May Day posies.

I thought about how soon my mom would let me go to the library to hang out in the children’s room. Or hanging out at Cathy Crown’s house with her spectacular farting dog.

I can promise you I never thought about hanging myself with a jumprope.

Cynical: believing that people are motivated by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity.

We live in a cynical world, we’ve been told. People are selfish, self-centered, fake and self-interested.

Is this TRUE?

Cynical: concerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted or appropriate standards in order to achieve them.

 Are you concerned only with your own interests? Are you without ethical or moral standards?

Is this YOU?

If you answered YES to both questions, I don’t know what to say to you, except I do actually pity you. If you answered no to the second question (regardless of your answer to the first), please join me in rejecting cynicism.

Because if you aren’t like that, why would you choose to believe everyone else is? Isn’t it possible that others, like you, are simply doing the best they can with what they’ve been given/have gotten in this life?

And if that is true, perhaps instead of devolving into a cynical world view, we’d all do better to develop into an idealistic and compassionate world view (or optimistic at the very least).

Look at the strangers around you wherever you go today – whether that’s the grocery store or a movie theater, or simply walking down the street or waiting for the bus.

If you see them through cynical eyes, they are all potentially dangerous, potentially sociopaths. You don’t want to make eye contact with them, much less speak or connect with them.

But if you see them through compassionate eyes, they are all potentially interesting, potentially kind, potently human. They are people you might smile at, be willing to chance connecting with.

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of living in a world in which six year olds can look around themselves and think, “I’ve had enough. It will never get better than this.”

I’d rather spend my time believing that this one world we live in is better than the cynics’ world. I’d rather create a different world: one that invites rather than repels; one that offers hope; one in which we don’t immediately look for the darkest meaning behind each sentence, hidden within each action. If (as I believe) perception IS reality, and my perceptions influence my responses to the world around me – and are deeply influenced by my world view – then I had better practice excellent mental hygiene. I had better pay close attention to the beliefs that wriggle their way into my thinking and begin to steer my choices.

In my thoughts AND in my actions, I’d rather be an idealist than a cynic. And if I’m wrong, and the cynics are right, I’ll still be happier in my delusion than they will be in their reality.

“All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. ”  — Conan O’Brien








On Monday of this week, the nation celebrated the life, words, and activism of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. My social media feeds, and likely yours, overflowed with inspirational quotes taken from Dr. King’s speeches and written works. The number of people inspired by Dr. King’s life and words over the decades is incalculable.

Also this week, on Tuesday, the nation participated in the annual political ritual of the President’s State of the Union address. I tuned in, and listened with interest. Did I agree with everything President Obama said? No. Did I find much of what he said idealistic? Yes. Were there moments that I found inspiring? Absolutely.

I watched the address on PBS, and immediately afterwards a panel of pundits began their postmortems. Without exception, each one mentioned the idealism of the vision President Obama shared in the second half of his speech. For the most part, they poo-pooed it as being unrealistic, going so far as to suggest that he should have stuck to concrete policies rather than sharing his vision of what this country could be, perhaps is in its best moments.

I’m not writing today to argue the merits of the political positions or policies the President promulgated in his speech. What caught my attention was the suggestion that the leader of this nation ought not to share an idealistic vision as part of his outline for the coming year.

3 thoughts on “Rejecting Cynicism

  1. A thought provoking post. You and I seem to have a different definition of what a cynic is. To me a cynic is someone who is suspicious (in general) of people’s motives believing that people are basically selfish and motivated by greed, materialism and ambition at whatever the cost. This attitude is adopted in response to experience. I consider myself somewhat cynical based on my definition. I find myself trying to come to grips with the Buddhist ethos that I have been trying to nurture and practice for the last 10 years with 50 years of (often times bitter) experience.

    I guess I feel that a cynic is just an idealist who somewhere along the road lost hope.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Bob! I’m not sure our definitions are so different – yours is very similar to the dictionary definition included in my post. And you are absolutely right, experience leads us toward the cynical end of the spectrum. What I am concerned about is the cynic’s basic orientation of distrust and belief in the “badness” (for lack of a better word off the top of my head) of others. I think this causes us to make choices which are smaller and meaner than we would perhaps make if we choose to believe that people, like ourselves, aren’t always/only acting out of selfish motives, aren’t always going to place personal good above the common good. I agree, it is hard to take the Buddhist ethos when we’ve been hurt, when we are bitter. So much more difficult, in my opinion, if we allow the pull of cynicism to take us toward pessimism and loss of hope.

      I’ve been ridiculed much of my life for being an idealist..guess I’m at the point where I’m owning that – just because things are one way doesn’t mean they can’t change! Hope is, I believe, a renewable resource.

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