Was thinking about the issue of cynicism. There is quite a bit to be cynical ABOUT these days. But that is precisely the point of this post. While I shake my head and facepalm myself in embarrassment towards a lot of what goes on “out there” I wonder if it also possible that cynicism resides WITHIN me, the cynic as well. Before looking at this a little more I want to share a story from Andrew Byers book, “Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic Saint.”
“Most of us do not actively seek to embrace cynicism. We fall into it. I fell rather hard in the sixth grade. It was 1986. That was the first year we had lockers, and their metallic clang and bang added a new hallway sound. Vocab quizzes replaced the elementary spelling tests, but most of the new words in our mouths were of the “dirty” variety, and we whispered them awkwardly for laughs and furtively wrote them on our desks in #2 graphite. Newly awakened hormones spawned a feral hallway energy distinctively unlike that of the fifth grade hall. Cliques of “cool” and “uncool” were beginning to solidify. You could almost smell the pungent aura of territorialism in the halls between each class. It was the last year of outdoor recess. It was the year Wanda Turner had a “period” (whatever that was). It was the year when the boys and the girls were taller than I. It was my first experience of corporal punishment in the school system. It was the worst year of my life.
And in that year I fell in love.
She and I were good friends, but she was in love with him. You know the one: the guy who had a bit of height on him, no acne and that roguish charm that girls find so irresistible. The role of quarterback was given to him without dispute for every football game at recess. When a girl became “It” in freeze tag, there was hardly any point for the rest of us boys to run—we knew who she would be chasing. He wore the latest Swatch for a timepiece, and as I recall he knew how to efficiently “tight roll” his denim pant legs just above his sneakers. And there was of course the gold chain glimmering in the V-shape imposed onto his tanned chest by the polo shirts. (They were definitely made by Ralph Lauren and not the imitation brands.)
I did not stand a chance.
Strangely enough, he and I were friends. In the previous year the teacher had sentenced him to move his seat from the back of the classroom in order to sit by the shy, squeamish kid who was too harmless to pose any trouble. That was me, and due to his spatial relocation we developed a bit of a friendship. But now, a year later, he had effortlessly secured as his girlfriend the one dazzling gem who had become the object of all my romantic hopes. One night he called me and confessed to cheating on her. (I was never sure what this entailed during the middle school years, but it always sounded so sinister.) The next day, his betrayal was the big scandal, and my chance had come to rise to the surface as an alternative suitor. All day long I stood by the distressed damsel as a valiant guardian against all male evils, repeatedly hinting to her that should she choose to “go with” me, she would never have to face the pain of mistreatment again. By lunchtime it seemed as though the entire sixth grade class was involved in this thrilling imbroglio. Then at the end of the day, through the clang and bang of the hallway lockers, she broke the news to me with laughter that it was all staged—our classmates knew about my (supposedly secret) crush, and they just wanted to see how I would react to the fictional scenario. The spectacle I had provided went beyond their grandest expectations.
For years to come I was a romantic cynic. There are much darker adolescent tales out there than my unpleasant little introduction to teenage romance. The story is provided to make the point that cynicism often arises from painful disillusionment—when the rug gets violently jerked out from under us, when the wool long pulled over our eyes is yanked off. The moment of the defining injury is often abrupt, having the effect of an explosive collision that tosses us into some pit. When we open our eyes after the impact, we find ourselves in a dark place staring up into a light we once enjoyed—and to which we feel we can never return. Sometimes the painful disillusionment is not abrupt but subtle, gradually developing within us over time like the imperceptible infiltration of a slow-working virus. Then one day it occurs to us that we have become all too familiar with a darkness we never knew took us over, and we barely recognize the light. Then again, was it really “light” from which we fell? Disillusionment is the dispersal of illusions. What we violently collide with before the sharp plummet into cynicism’s pit is usually a disturbing reality. If the downward movement is more gradual, then our cynicism has resulted from accepting a series of disquieting truths over a period of months or years. Cynicism arises from an embrace of reality. But since illumination often hurts, it can become an embittered embrace of reality. 1 eventually recovered from my bout with romantic disillusionment. (And I should point out the fact that the young teenage girl in the previous scene is now serving Christ nobly on the mission field.) There is a form of disillusionment that is much more potentially devastating than that of crushed romance, though. What if we are disillusioned by the church—that one safe harbour of community on which Christians are told to rely when all else comes crashing down? What if we become cynical toward the faith that is supposed to sustain us through all life’s trials? Even worse, what if the object of our disillusionment is not the thirteen-year-old dream girl we adore, the spouse we treasure, or the church that (supposedly) nurtures us, but the God we worship?”
Other than wondering what the jock is doing these days (possibly a miserable failure?) or if the girl is doing OK and whether we should wish ill fortune upon them, the important point that Byers brings out here is the psychological aspect of cynicism and not so much the reality “outside” of the cynic. The interiority not the exteriority.
I’m not suggesting that the rug does not get pulled out from under us. That we don’t suffer from painful disillusionment. Rather, that “light” from which we fell….is it REALLY light or is it a false high expectation? Either way, there is both a reality/exteriority side and a psychological/interiority side to cynicism. If this is the case, then maybe the “problem” of cynicism to some extent resides with(in) us and not others and because of this, is something that can help us to understand our own (displaced) anger towards others.