The ‘Sinfulness’ of Cynicism

October 2009

When Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, the whole world seemed incredibly hopeful that the U.S. would take a responsible global leadership role. We hadn’t seen such enthusiastic hopefulness expressed in decades. It was global, genuine and palpable. For many younger people, it was a first – the first time they witnessed such widespread wholehearted enthusiasm.

As the months have passed since he took office, a patina has been a spreading slowly and steadily over that hope, like the green oxidation that covers the Statue of Liberty or a copper roof. This patina is protective. Once it has covered the bare copper no additional corrosion will take place. This is how cynicism grows as well – it may protect the idealist from future hurt but it also corrodes from within.

In my new-yet-to-be-published book, The New Human, I address the pandemic of cynicism taking hold in so many of our institutions. It is a popular way of coping with things that seem hopeless and inevitable. I call it “cynicide” because this attitudinal virus corrodes our souls, and will eventually kill us spiritually. I suspect it may even shorten physical life since it is hardly a healthy attitude to hold onto.

Resorting to cynicism seems to provide comfort or a palliative for the psyche. There’s an old saying that if you scratch a cynic you’ll find a disillusioned idealist underneath. This is how most cynics are born – out of some painful or disappointing event in their history. And they vowed never to try anything “idealistic” again. The cynic has adapted a prejudice against anything he or she judges to be idealist and is, therefore, predisposed to oppose anything that suggests things can be really better than they are.

This decision of seeming self-protection is a sad thing for our society. It robs us of another soul who might be willing to push the envelope and exceed convention when it comes to doing good in the world. It prevents breakthroughs.

It cements self-centeredness. It is defensive in nature rather than expansive. It shrinks the person causing them to be seen less, to contribute less and to love less. It may make the person feel “safe,” but great things are rarely achieved when everyone in hunkered down playing it safe.

And yes, it is a form of spiritual suicide. Those religious traditions which include sinfulness amongst their teachings consider suicide a sin.

Let us not rush to protecting ourselves from disappointment, thus curtailing ourselves from reaching for what is possible. Let us not be prisoners of the past but instead listen for what wants to happen in the future. Dream on, people, and don’t pull down the shades on the light of hope, that destiny that awaits us all as human beings, that Great Dream* I wrote about in my last book.

Pay close attention and watch out for that creep of cynicism and if you start to feel yourself tempted to take a sip of the cynic’s Kool Aid, say a prayer, take a hike, do anything but succumb to the temptation. We are all grownups and even if we do get disappointed again, we can live with it. The cost of avoiding disappointment is too great a price to pay.

The consciousness with which you are engaging life is self fulfilling: looking with cynicism will yield situations that reinforce that cynicism. PBS filmmaker Ken Burns says we too often “make choices based on the safety of cynicism, and what we’re led to is a life not fully lived. Cynicism is fear – and it’s worse than fear – its active disengagement.” Today the world needs people who can be engaged. Disengagement will kill more than one person’s soul. Collectively it could contribute hugely to our extinction.

*Download The Great Dream, the epilogue from John’s book Getting to the Better Future.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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