One of my classmates at JTS says that you can divide up most of the JTS student body (and most groups in general) into two categories: “deep breathers” and “eye rollers.” The deep breathers are those meditative types, the ones who meet a new situation with a huge inhale and a contented smile. They’re the Pollyannas, the ones who other students can’t stand because they’re always so positive and cheery and never seem to be phased by anything.
And then there are the rest of us. The eye rollers. I think we’ve all been eye rollers at some point or another – whether it’s sitting in the back of the lecture hall as the clock is running out and the teacher still hasn’t made his point yet after going on for an hour, or when someone makes a point that’s dumb and trite, and we seek out eye contact with that one other person who will just understand how silly the other person’s comment just was. The cynic lives in us all.
Why are we so drawn to cynicism? What’s appealing and beneficial about being a cynic? What purpose does it serve in our lives and interactions? And along with that, what are some of the unintended consequences of being an eye-roller in the world?
I think some of us are cynical because we value looking at the world with realism and pragmatism. We want to observe the world around us thoughtfully and carefully, and we want to accurately describe our circumstances. What is this like? What do I know from my own experience that I can bring to bear on the current experience that I’m having? If I’ve been to twenty lectures before by the same professor, and I know that he’s prone to droning on and on without making a point, it’ll be pretty foolish for me to expect that this time will be radically different. Those that do expect that this time will be different are just naive.
Being cynical allows us to feel like experts in a given situation, to speak from experience and authority. We can make judgments about what’s valuable and important, both in broad ways and in very specific ways. Cynicism also protects us from being disappointed. When we go into a new situation with low expectations and with walls up, we’re less likely to be disappointed when it doesn’t turn out to be the best thing ever. How many times have we gone on a first date telling ourselves, “This is probably going to be awful. Don’t get your hopes up”? Cynicism is self protection from disappointment and from having to make ourselves too vulnerable.
And finally, cynicism saves us time, so we don’t have to look at the world or our experiences anew each time. We can compare this new experience to something that we’ve seen in the past that’s similar, much in the same way that cultural stereotypes save us the time and energy of having to make new decisions or judgments. If I’ve already decided in the past that a particular person or event is not worth my time or investment of resources, I can save myself the trouble of investing my energy by approaching that person or the event without my full attention.
So it all makes perfect sense why we would be drawn to a cynical view of the world. It’s pragmatic, self-protective, and generally much safer than investing ourselves fully in every new experience. But perhaps the consequence of being cynical is that it prevents us from connecting with a world that we’re so quick to judge. When we’re cynical, we hold the world at a distance, keeping people at an arm’s length from us. Rather than being curious about others, drawing close to them, wanting to experience them more deeply and uncover the hidden parts, we stick with what we can see on the surface. We don’t engage. We pull back.
And the result is an experience of this world that doesn’t have the full richness of life. We become dispassionate, disconnected observers. We never allow ourselves to be surprised, to be open to the unexpected. I want us to look deeply at our eye-rolling selves and the walls of cynicism that we put up between ourselves and others. We don’t have to give up our critical lens and our keen observations of the world around us, but I do believe that we need to change the way that we look at the world. Are we setting ourselves apart and separate, or are we choosing to approach new and potentially uncomfortable situations with curiosity and wonder. It does mean that we’re more likely to be disappointed and get hurt – but it also means that we’ll be open to learning far more about ourselves and others than we otherwise could.email print