I am most proud of my integrity and least proud of my cynicism.
– Chloe Sevigny
I’m normally a cynical person, but get a cynic drunk and he’ll admit that he’s really a romantic who’s just trying to avoid getting hurt.
A cynic wants to believe in the good things he hears, but he’s been disappointed enough in life that he feels as though getting excited about something new would be an illogical risk. He’d rather be seen as the guy who can’t be blamed for not caring than the guy who never learned from his mistakes.
Cynicism is an intellectual solution to an emotional problem. It doesn’t add up. But it does let us think we understand more about the world than those poor optimistic idiots who don’t know they’re going to get let down yet again. It’s just as much a self-delusion as optimism is, but it feels worse because your sanctimony doesn’t even allow for the luxury of hope.
The Year of the Cynic
Maybe it’s just me, but we seem to be more cynical than ever.
Maybe it’s our sour economy. Maybe it’s the petty, tribal, clannish behavior we see popularized during an American election year. Maybe it’s the polarizing social issues we debate now instead of our economy — a practice that requires no intellectual rigor from participants, but instead rewards passionate opinions.
Whatever the cause(s), the effect of subjectivity’s modern triumph has been threefold:
We now live in a world where everyone can form not only his own opinion or worldview, but his own reality, thus rendering logical discussions functionally impossible. Arguments are made based on specious facts, facts are declared irrelevant, and otherwise sound theories are rejected based upon the reputation of the theorist.
In short: nothing matters, so why bother?
And while I truly think American politics has a lot to do with this trend, it’s not just an American problem. Cynicism is contagious in a way that optimism isn’t, because optimism requires an innocence that adults reject in favor of the street cred that comes with doubt. But whether Americans are fueling the cynicism or just reacting to it, it’s spreading, and not in a good way.
A Political Aside You Should Read Even if You’re Not American
This could be the most Orwellian political year I’ve ever seen, in which at least one of the presidential candidates admits that facts are of no use to his campaign. And given that the US presidential election is always a 50/50 shot for the two finalists, American voters find themselves in the unthinkable position of trying to figure out which worst case scenario they fear less: re-electing the socialist fascist communist, or dethroning him in favor of the identity-less plutocrat.
No wonder we’re cynical.
And while I personally prefer to be inspired by Obama than be admonished by the GOP, I’m more troubled by the correlation that being inspired is to be naive — as though, by preferring to focus on the bright side of a flawed opportunity instead of dwelling on the flaws of the man behind that shiny curtain, I’m a weak-minded idiot who needs to be “assisted” toward a more mature mindset.
I’m not in the market for parochialism. Give me two dueling ideals and I’ll be thrilled to have to choose between competing inspirations, but if you’re selling a product intended to make me feel worse than I already do, don’t be confused when no one wants your free samples.
How Do We Justify the Act of Becoming Inspired Again?
Look, the world kind of sucks right now.
Then again, it always has — if not for you, then for the country (or business, or person) next to you. If we’re not at war (and we always are), then our economy is “in a rebuilding year,” or our social values are being torn apart, or our climate is trying to kill us, or someone else is. And if they aren’t now, they’re planning to do it later. And if they aren’t even doing that, they could.
By that rationale, the mere act of not being terrified every day is, itself, revolutionary.
In the face of so much negativity, choosing to be inspired might seem illogical. But since logic is no longer in vogue, you’re free to feel any way you’d like to feel. Given the gamut of possible emotions, why not choose to be inspired?
Here’s how it works (for those of you who’ve forgotten):
- Envision the possibility that things could get better.
- Identify at least one symptom of what that improvement would look like.
- Investigate what it would take to make that change happen.
- Take efforts to effect that change.
- Succeed or fail.
- Figure out what went right (or wrong).
Yes, those are a lot of steps, whereas cynicism only has one step:
- Do nothing.
But if we all sit around waiting for our bosses, our coworkers, our spouses, our parents, our kids, our government, the rich, God, or someone else to solve our problems, we might never have anything to feel better about. (Ever.)
Plus, look on the bright side: if one of those entities is going to swoop in and solve your problems for you, why not solve a few yourself while you’re waiting? That way they can help you with the really big things you haven’t gotten to yet, instead of the small things you keep complaining about every day, like media rhetoric, poor customer service, interdepartmental miscommunication, rebellious teens, unemployment, obesity, racism, sexism, and the absence of quality reality television.
Any one of those problems — and hundreds more — could be solved by not saying, “This won’t work,” and instead saying, “I think this could work. How can you help me make this better?”
And if all of the above are solvable by us working together, rather than against each other, what’s stopping us?