For some reason, in my heart, I still think I’m 44. Maybe you have a particular age at which you’ve stayed frozen in your mind? But then birthdays roll around—and we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror—and we realize that time has gone by and we’re not as young as we think we are!
So I thought it was funny when I recently read that our cynicism begins to grow at age 44! That certainly is not what I remember and romanticize about being 44! But, I suppose we’ve lived enough life by that age to have experienced personal failure. We’ve seen enough of our world to know that nations act out of corrupt principles and bad things happen to good people. We’ve been in enough relationships to know that things are not always as they seem and perceived sincerity sometimes masks manipulation. So maybe we become a bit jaded as we get into our 40’s and see each day through a different lens?
Juilian Baggini writes an interesting, even amusing article, about cynicism in an online publication called simply “Psychology.” He states, “If there’s one thing that makes me cynical, it’s optimists. They’re far too cynical about cynicism.” He assures us that cynics make for good investigative journalists, good satirists and they ask important questions. Baggini thinks they get a bad rap as pessimists: “Cynics refuse to be typecast as Jeremiahs. They are realists who know that the world is not the sun-kissed fantasy peddled by positive-thinking gurus and shysters.”
There are varied definitions to the term that give some latitude to what it means to be a cynic. Here are a few of them. 1)Believing that people are motivated by self-interest, distrustful of human sincerity or integrity. Doubtful as to whether something will happen or whether it is worthwhile. 2)Contemptuous, mocking. 3)Concerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted or appropriate standards in order to achieve them. 4)Contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives.
Wow! These are not the folks you want working in the next cubicle over in the office!
On our Lenten bus ride from hell to heaven we meet a character who is referred to as the hard-bitten man. The narrator in this work of fiction by C.S. Lewis has taken a bus to leave the gray town behind for the possibility of something better at the end of the bus line. He encounters a number of “ghosts” (people who have died and are given the opportunity to leave the gray town for good) but it requires them to let go of favorite vices. The narrator encounters the hard-bitten man and describes him as “not uneducated, the kind of man I have always instinctively found to be reliable.” In their ensuing conversation we discover that his hard-scrabble life has left him a cynic. He boasts that he’s the sort of man who likes to see things for himself. This led him to explore exciting places all across the globe during his earthly life. His evaluation? “Nothing to it. “It’s all propaganda. There’s a World Combine comprised of all the same people They pick a spot for something spectacular that will draw a crowd, set it up, do some good PR and then use it to their own advantage. When the narrator questions him about the promises that things might be better in this place where the bus has landed rather than their mundane existence in hell, he rejects it: “Same old lie…..There is never new management.”
His take on life verges on paranoia. Nursery school teachers, parents, spouses, military superiors were all part of the same establishment, in cahoots with each other. The narrator is taken aback by his convincing argument that no one can be trusted. So he asks a question of the cynic: “What would you like to do if you had your choice?” This was not well-received! He barked a response to the innocent question: “There you go! Asking me to make a plan. It’s up to the Management to find something that doesn’t bore us, isn’t it? Why should we do it for them?”
The man’s suspicions seemed convincing. As he ambled away, carrying his dark cloud with him, the narrator says: “A great depression had come over me…I was as miserable as I had ever felt in my life.” No wonder! This kind of character can kill off any party! Fear and hopelessness are easily peddled when we’ve lived enough life to have seen a thing or two. The narrator’s interest in this new place that stood on the edge of heaven was gone. He confesses the effect of the conversation: “Terror whispered, “This is no place for you.”
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phil. 3:17-4:1), he argues the opposite. He reminds these believers who faced persecution, “Our citizenship is in heaven…” Then, as now, there were enemies to the way of life Christ modeled. Their focus was on themselves and their desire was for earthly things. Paul’s point is that no matter what life is like for us here, we will never fully feel like we belong. In heaven Jesus transforms our humble, earthly bodies into a reflection of His glory. In the meantime, we feel out of place here because heaven is truly the place for us!
I was surprised to discover that the ancient school of cynicism began in the late fifth century before Christ and harkens back to the era of Socrates. According to Baggini, the goal of the early cynics was to “Blow away the fog and confusion and see reality with lucidity and clarity.” Early cynics like Diogenes and Crates were committed to a simple, austere way of life. In fact, Diogenes was known to live in a barrel situated on the main drag in his hometown! Their interest in living naturally, without a reliance on material goods, carried the movement for 900 years. In the Roman Empire, during the lifespans of Jesus and Paul, the school of cynics held their place, demonstrating a radical form of simplicity. After dying out in the sixth century AD, it was reclaimed in the 1800’s with a pessimistic edge to it. The guy we meet on the bus ride has mastered the art of steeling himself against any admiration for the world around him. In spite of his remarkable voyages he remained impressively unimpressed! Yet he was unwilling to take any responsibility for the shape of his life. The effect on those around him was increased paranoia and depression!
Fear is often at the root of cynicism. Rather than get stood up on our hopes, we keep the bar for our expectations very low. Before someone can do us in, we speak poorly of them. Over time joy dries up and we find ourselves, like the hard-bitten man, in a hell of our own making. When we read the 27th Psalm we find a very different reaction to the inevitable challenges we encounter. It is attributed to King David whose life was threatened on countless occasions. He was known as a valiant warrior whose enemies wanted nothing more than to parade his dead body before their people. If anyone had reason to be fearful and paranoid of plots, King David did!
But in this psalm we learn what keeps David centered. His opening lines are a triumphant song of confidence: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” In spite of the threat of assailants, armies and false witnesses, he finds refuge from God. In his worship, David is refreshed. His imagery is rich and fitting for that time period: God hides him in his tent which is set on a rocky precipice. It affords him an aerial view of his enemies. Out of gratitude David offers a sacrifice—of joy! He doesn’t fall prey to cynicism. He is overcome with gladness when God rescues him. We are given a glimpse into his soul when he writes, “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” YOUR FACE, LORD, DO I SEEK! Far from living a perfect life of obedience, David is known for his major transgressions. But, we see in his prayer that his love for and trust in God is deep. It sustains him and he is continually learning from God. It leads him to make a bold statement of faith at the end of the psalm: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong and take courage; wait for the LORD!”
Paul, another believer who risked his life out of a love for God, exhorts beleaguered followers of Jesus with similar words of encouragement: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the LORD in this way, my beloved.”
Fear often is at the root of cynicism. Reasons to be afraid in our contemporary world abound! We are provoked into anxiety every time we look at the news. Daily we hear voices that represent the politics of blame and mistrust. The wall on our southern border is constructed with steel to keep fear at bay. There’s mistrust of medical opinions promoting vaccines. We’re linking a new outbreak of measles to the choices parents have made. There’s dispute over global warming while natural disasters claim headline attention seemingly every week. A deadly plane crash in Ethiopia heightens our anxiety about trusting manufacturers of the planes we strap ourselves into for exciting vacations and business ventures. The most recent terrorist attack in New Zealand, slaughtering Muslims in worship, reminds us that we’re never as safe as we think and that sudden and surprising death is always a possibility. Fear is ever-present in our peripheral vision no matter what direction we face.
The cover of TIME magazine in May of 2017 was a stark black and red canvas with a question: Is Truth Dead. It mimicked the cover from the April 8 issue of TIME in 1966. In the same colors a different question was asked: Is God Dead. That was the first time that there was no image on the cover. After considering many options for how to illustrate this question, the decision was this: “…the only artist who could paint a portrait of God is God.” So the question was spelled out in a starkly bold manner. Fifty-one years later a related question was thrust before us: Is truth dead? Who can we trust? What news is not fake news? Did every student earn their way into college or did money open doors for undeserving but privileged teens? When tornadoes annihilate entire cities and politicians break promises; when city planners propose ideas and terrorist plots are revealed, we wonder who can we trust? Where can we turn for refuge?
The hard-bitten Ghost in Lewis’ story, The Great Divorce, is unwilling to trust anyone but himself. The result is a singularly unimpressed cynic who wanders alone from one place to another, braced against joy and fearing the worst. By his choice he remains in a hell of his own making even though heaven beckons to him with a promise of joy. He cannot and will not see it.
But two pillars of our faith set a different course. Both David and Paul had lived long enough to see that each day entails risk. Every relationship threatens heartbreak. Using our talents in a bold way may result in failure. Enemies lurk and watch for our point of weakness. So what do we do? Whom do we trust? What truth do we embrace when truth is announced as being dead?
We hang our hope on the God of Jesus Christ. When we feel out of sync in our earthly life we take solace in remembering that our true home is not here. So we encourage each other with the words Paul wrote for his beloved Philippian congregation: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the LORD in this way, my beloved.” We emulate the devotional life of King David whose heart whispered to him, “Come, seek God’s face.” When threatened with destruction David did not succumb to the selfish path of the cynic. He affirmed his faith in a voice that has offered encouragement to generations of believers: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!”