Cynicism is one of my guilty pleasures. I have a sharp tongue and can quickly turn a phrase. Within a sentence or two I can drain life from another person with a cutting jest. My Irish ancestors should raise a pint in my honor.
No one but me knows what's on the edge of my tongue that would prop me up loftily while making another person—my "subject"—the object of ridicule. I've worked hard to restrain this slice-and-dice propensity. I've learned (and am still learning) not to let the wrong thoughts become unleashed comments, though for much of my life doing so was one of my strongest features and most regular actions. I came to realize that using this ability that way is destructive to thumos—both other people's and my own.
So today I avoid media that are steeped in cynicism (Rolling Stone magazine being just one example). If I don't, a native voice soon beckons me, calling forth a cocksure and musky disposition that ascends an almighty throne, places a scepter in my right hand, and pronounces judgment upon all of God's creation. It comes so naturally; I rapidly find myself writing, in my head, with a crowd-pleasing flair. Through cynicism, I somehow can get several times too big for my britches.
During my cynical years, I cursed the darkness around me but didn't have the thumos to step out and try to shine some light. Now, having been on the battlefield awhile, I find myself the target of cynicism from others, usually younger men boozed up on ideology, just let loose from chilly academia. They're calling or writing to rain down the fire of cynical judgment from their ivory towers; I've discovered that they tend to assign motives to me about which they could not possibly know.
I used to contact some of them so I could tell them to get off their blessed assurance and go do something useful, but now, fortunately, I have neither the time nor the interest. I also hear from men who have become cynical about having been burned by organized religion; sometimes they accuse me of being a mindless parrot. Yet traditional church leaders along with aging hippies are among my loudest critics. Even as I actively endeavor to turn from it and tame it, cynicism has me coming and going.
Over time I've come to see that cursing the darkness was better than going through life not even seeing or acknowledging it. But not much better. Pointing my finger at those I deemed naïve, gullible, and hyper-spiritual didn't bring about anything good—it didn't create any light, love, or hope. As I've done many times, I mistook the quarrel for the battle. At some point, this happens to most everyone who has a fighting spirit, so if it's happened or is happening with you, don't beat yourself up about it. You do want to learn how to sidestep this mistake, but not at the cost of laying down your weapons for fear of using them imperfectly. Resolve to keep going, being aware that those with thumos spirit usually misspend it.
Cynics are made, not born, and the main sources of cynicism are common to our human experience, like dashed hopes, unmet expectations, and discovering no benefit from "playing by all the rules." To keep growing and strengthening our thumos, we need to expose cynicism's fundamental weaknesses. What we want in place of cynicism and its opposite, naivete, is what I call healthy suspicion, which historical Christianity has embraced but which is undernourished today. (For instance, think of all the teachings you've heard that have exhorted you to embrace innocence [of a dove] without emphasizing or even mentioning also becoming shrewd [as a snake].)
Cynics are frustrated idealists who sense or intuit how the world should be and are grieved and angered by how it is currently. But they have mishandled their grief: Instead of insulating its heated energy (as with a Thermos) and then funneling it toward noble ends, they let it fly or fire it off in either bitterness or rage. Indignation is a God-given capacity, one we're commanded to exercise; instead of allowing it to spur them toward problem-solving, though, cynics fail to hold on to and focus it (picture a small child trying to manage a fire hose at full blast). This unfruitfulness makes matters even worse, for it drains others of courage by depleting us of both heroes and hope.
The vast chasm between what life is and what life should be is enough to stretch out and snap our thumos. For many it does, but the broken nature of the cynic's boldness often is well disguised because he makes it look muscular, sophisticated, and tough. This discrepancy, and the lack of honesty that it builds, causes further pain and disillusionment, which unfortunately causes the cynic to retreat like a turtle into his shell for solace and protection; the shell is comprised of his mind, and his mind alone. There he comes increasingly to mistake criticism for action and denouncements for animation.
It's not that cynics aren't accurate in their criticisms—they often are. That's usually only part of the story, though; the issue is that their pronouncements overreach and are slanted by presuming to understand matters they cannot possibly know. In this manner, cynicism really is a form of cranky gossip, a safe place where we can look tough and in the know, a safe zone not too far from life's playing field that insulates its inhabitants from injury while being just close enough to give the impression of participation and involvement.
Study any important facet of life—faith, marriage, parenthood, friendship, civic duty—and there you will find scores of cynics who once believed in that arena but were somehow hurt in it. Their hearts and visions have been broken; people need heart and vision to grow thumos. Among the saddest examples are those who speak in harsh or bitter or dismissive tones about the very institutions that bring vitality and healing to so many (for example, wounded divorcees, in regard to marriage).
Churches that emphasize ever-lengthening lists of rules and prohibitions are a Petri dish for spiritual cynicism. There's always another piety hill to climb, so there's no rest, and there's no peace that connects people. Likewise, formulaic churches—"Pray, then X and Y will happen"—are cynic factories because they consistently create, inflate, and then shatter hopes and expectations.
According to many letters I receive, wealthy churches that spend millions on buildings and programs but fail to lift burdens through ministry also create cynics. I know one pastor who simply grew sick of it—his thumos rose up and said Enough! What are we really doing?! So his church contacted a nearby elementary school and said that they wanted to adopt it.
"What do you need?" he asked. "Computers, fresh paint, some ceilings fixed; stuff like that," he heard. That's what they're providing right now. In this very practical process, probably unknown to many, they're also providing a powerful antidote to spiritual cynicism by putting their faith and love into action.
Only one person on this earth has ever had perfectly pure motives, and he's now in heaven at his father's right hand. The intentions of everyone else are suspect, and yet even within healthy suspicion I've found many, many good and honorable motives. I've been fortunate enough to meet and serve with many ministers across this country, and we've teamed up to help men, marriages, and children, to do our part in helping them toward more abundant living. These leaders are screwed up, just like me and you; they're doing good, and they're making tangible progress in tangibly loving others, imperfectly fulfilling (but fulfilling nonetheless) the good works put before them.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous Faith, No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the values-based and faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for public schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals who want to diminish child-based bullying.
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