The cynic complains about the wind; the fool expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.
Cynic: distrustful of human sincerity or integrity and concerned only with one’s own interests, typically disregarding accepted or appropriate standards in order to achieve them.
Sentimental: excessively prone to feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.
Realist: a person who understands what is possible in a particular situation.
Yesterday, after our delicious Thanksgiving meal, my son-in-law and I were chatting about the topic of how to respond to the current mess of the world while we played 3-dimensional Score 4. My comment was this:
“One of life’s tricks is to learn how to realistically face with hope and even idealistically to the harsh realities of life and yet respond pragmatically without becoming a narcissistic, cynical bastard.”
To which my son-in-law responded:
“Well, that’s very tough, if not impossible. All I see is people who are either realistic but nasty bastards or well-meaning, compassionate fools who are so disconnected from reality that they ensure that life will get worse for all concerned, especially those they want to help.”
I had to agree with him. However, that does not mean that the challenge of being simultaneously a harsh realist AND a compassionate idealist is not possible – it is just very, very difficult. But that’s OK by me! Aren’t all the best things in life a challenge? For example, I am learning to play some lovely Romances for piano by Brahms; they are gorgeous but boy are they difficult! So, let’s see if it’s possible to avoid the twin traps of cynicism and naiveté.
Such is the life of Man. Moments of Joy, obliterated by unforgettable pain and sadness.
There’s no need to tell the children that. – Marcel Pagnol
Cynicism is part of a defensive posture we take to protect ourselves. It’s typically triggered when we feel hurt by or angry at something, and instead of dealing with those emotions directly, we allow them to fester and skew our outlook. When we grow cynical toward one thing in our lives, we may slowly start to turn on everything. We think of cynical people as nasty and unpleasant, but this is not always the case. I have a neighbour how can be a cynical bastard – the problem is, he is often right. He is often darn unpleasant, but darn it, he is right! After many years I have finally figured out that this attitude of his has been honed by the school hard knocks and many unpleasant experiences – mostly to do with lying and betrayal. In his case at least, he has a heart of gold that is protected by his grumpy persona – it is his defense against a nasty world. So, while he may growl at you, if he says he will do something for you – you can count on it being done.
As a matter of fact it can be argued that cynicism is a defense from becoming too self-righteous and deluded. I read this on a blog and had to laugh. Perhaps this will resonate with your inner cynic.
“Today I am grateful for being cynical. Okay, I can’t help it alright? I know that there are many people who feel that things in the current US administration are moving along nicely. I just don’t happen to be one of them. Tonight is the State of the Union Address and I am boycotting it. Why would I pay attention to someone who lies with the same ease that most people breathe? Why would I put myself through the agony and angst of watching an egotistical maniac brag and boast about what a perfect human he is when there is so much evidence to the contrary? I won’t. So instead I’ve comprised a list of a few things I might do instead.
- Pick off a scab and attempt to staunch the flow of blood.
- Cut my toenails then try to find them all after they fly around the room like shrapnel.
- Clean the rug without the vacuum, picking up tiny pieces of popcorn and lint one at a time.
So, while I am NOT recommending that we becoming cynical bastards, I think that it is fair to say that it is often [usually?] a defense mechanism used by a [tender hearted] person who gets taken advantage of one time too many. Of course, once a cynic, nobody likes you, and you end up in a self fulfilling spiral of anger and loneliness. This viscous cycle was recently confirmed by research which found:
Results revealed that cynical individuals were much more likely to develop health problems but, vice versa, poor health promoted the development of a cynical worldview over time.‘ Health problems that noticeably constrained subjects’ lives were the most likely to lead to cynicism. If someone’s illness prevented them from climbing up the stairs for example, they had a higher chance of becoming cynical than if they suffered from something less obviously inconvenient like elevated blood pressure.
Given the above our inaction on issues like climate change, the 6th mass extinction, income inequality, our mental health and opioid crises, etc. it is perfectly rational to be a cynic – as a matter of fact, if a part of you is not I would propose that you are either a Saint [or are trying to be] or a naïve fool. So, yes, I guess I am asking that you try to be a Saint! More on that later. For now, just be more compassionate with your cynical friends, realize that they are living in a dead-end death spiral but that their attitude is understandable and rational – just very, very unhelpful as it ensure that nothing get better. Even if a cynic is right,[as they often are] because he/she is alone and unable to inspire others, their “being right” is no help at all.
Anyone who does not believe in miracles is not a realist. – Audrey Hepburn
Naïve, Sentimental Fool
On the other extreme we have naivete – if anything, it is less helpful and more dangerous than being a cynic. Why? Because the naïve, sentimental fool thinks he/she is acting and behaving to improve things – but is not. Why? Well, they are so incapable and unwilling to admit to the face the really nasty reality that human beings are often plain unpleasant and feel justified in their nastiness. As the above quote suggests, people who cannot face the reality that life is full of pain and sadness are children – they never grew up. We have a bias, that I think is unwarranted, that being cynical is always bad and being sentimental is always good. The key reason I disagree with this bias is the word ‘always’. Of course, this is often true, but the fact that most us are prone to making mistakes is also true, but not always – people are capable of amazing and incredible feats – witness the landing of Men on the Moon and more impressively their return. Clearly, there are times when sentimentality is helpful and appropriate; as when your baby is born, your daughter gets married… you get the idea. Sentimentality bonds us, it shows that we care for each other – all good things. However, when this emotion turns your executive functioning off and you get soppy when the situation actually demands some harshness to improve things… well, then being sentimental makes for poor decision making, naivete and what Cowboys would called gutlessness. Here is a famous quote from Garrett Harding, the famous environmental ethicist who made famous the idea of “The Tragedy of the Commons”. The fool says we must all be “free” – that without “freedom” there is no morality – but is this always the case or is this generalization only true for the fool?
Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial (8). The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers. – Garrett Harding, 
Now, let’s bring this idea closer to reality. Over the dinner table I asked my wife, daughter and Mother [separately] whether they would prefer to be with a cynical bastard or sentimental fool – surprising to me was this unanimous response: all three would choose the cynical bastard! Why? He would get the job done. He was face the nasties’ of life and deal with it for them. My personal opinion is that our current society’s value system over values naïve sentimentality that lets people down so that they look for somebody who will stop pretending. The result? A terrible oscillation to the other extreme – they seek out the cynical bastard – and of course, he/she is only able to make everything worse. The Solution? To be harsh AND compassionate.
“I was hell-bent on being an effective humanitarian in Cambodia and Somalia. But a naïve fog is finally lifting. Revealed is a train wreck of illusions, the depravity of someone else’s war, the futility of a competence stillborn there. To understand and admit to this you have to become a realist.”
― Kenneth Cain, Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone
Harsh AND Compassionate
Most of us think that being realistic means we have to lose our idealism. I disagree. Being realistic is the only way to get your ideals to actually happen in the ‘real’ world.
I spent my life teaching Chemistry and Physics. So, yes, I admit that I think that Science has a lot to do with our improved quality of life. To be a scientist may not quite mean being a cynic, but it certainly means being skeptical. However, I am also a 3rd Order Franciscan – that means I follow in the worldview/value system of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron Saint of the Environment. Yes, he prayed a lot, but more importantly, that prayer always translated into action. He is quoted as having said: “Let all the brothers preach by their works.” In other words, inspired action is how we deal with our problems. The key word for me is inspired – we must have a faith, a basic belief in human goodness, in spite of evidence to the contrary – and yet not delude ourselves that people do horrible things, and yet….
Life is full of miracles – or, if you prefer, events and ideas so amazing and so improbable and so beyond our understanding they may as well be miracles. Here is a concrete example of what I mean. There is often dispute between those believe in evolution and those who believe in a God created universe. I find this dichotomy unhelpful. Evolution makes sense to me and to me it only confirms what a miracle it is that life exists at all. When my children were young we watched “The Miracle Planet” – a joint CBC/Japanese documentary series about the evolution of our planet and life upon it. All the “coincidences” that allowed life to survive to survive, and often thrive because of disaster, were to my kids and to me so incredible, yes miraculous, and yet this is reality. We live. Life exists. It’s all so amazing – and yet so harsh. Extinction and death and destruction are the norm – but from that norm life becomes more abundant and more complex, stronger, faster, smarter…it evolves, not because of sentimentality, but because of the harshness. The result? The success of social animals such as ourselves, and bees/ants/termites that are compassionate with each other. These cooperative species have learned [we are still learning, but I am hopeful!] that compassion is smart, compassion is a successful behaviour that helps our respective species survive. So perhaps you and I can become Saints like St. Francis and not shrink from harsh truths while living lives of compassion.
“We must become realists to appreciate miracles.”
― Lidia Longorio
Why does this matter? If we want to address the existential problems we have to be both cynic and fool, be brave enough to face the harsh truths of pain and suffering that cannot be averted, and yet never give up, constantly hope beyond hope and inspire others to do likewise because being right alone does is not enough – only when we believe and act together do we have any chance of success, only then does our civilization stand a chance to survive, however remote it may seem to many of us today who see us foolishly running towards our self-created ruin. This does not have to be. To hope, means to know that there is a terror lurking outside our door that we would rather not face, however that terror only happens if we cannot change. However, if we change, in very fundamental ways by facing the harsh truth that the entire edifice of our values and social structures need a total over haul, and then act upon it, well, then that is no longer terror – there is opportunity. That is a miracle, terror transformed into opportunity – that is being a realist – because without this, life becomes hell on Earth instead of the [harsh] Heaven it can be.
“Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also.
― Fyodor Dostoyevski, The Brothers Karamazov
- Aquinas describes the devil’s deception through evil “that has a semblance of good” in his meditation on the Lord’s Prayer. See The Three Greatest Prayers: Commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles’ Creed, based on trans. by Laurence Shapcote (Sophia Institute Press: 1990), 152.
- Tragedy of the Commons, 1968 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1724745?origin=JSTOR-pdf