2018.04.19 : In defense of Cynicism

Two weeks ago (maybe more, maybe less) a friend and I sat down and started discussing philosophy.

I struggle to get along with optimists. Not to denigrate or dismiss them, because I think it’s beautiful to be able to believe in the best possible outcome. It is simply not something I am always able to entertain or understand. For me, optimism takes work.

The opposite of optimism is pessimism; the belief that everything will go wrong, all attempts will end in failure, and happy endings are impossible. This is the diametric opposition of the optimist, who believes that things will be okay, things will work out, and happy endings are always possible.

I am not a pessimist.

I consider myself a cynic. What does that mean exactly? It can’t be the same as pessimism, despite the fact that the words are often used interchangeably. Why does cynicism feel apt, where pessimism is grating?

The cynic, in my mind, is one who is ever hopeful, someone who dreams of happy endings, who wants things to work out. But. (And there is always a “but” with the cynic, it’s true.) Despite all that wanting, despite the dreaming, they’ve been frustrated too many times to believe that things will work out. The cynic reads the paper in the morning and weeps, because every morning they hope that the news will not be a litany of tragedies (though they know, every morning, when their feet touch the floor, that they should expect something terrible).

The cynic has taken a bad bet. Because the cynic will bet on the underdog, the new-comer, the good man knowing that they will lose. This is where the cynic and the pessimist differ; the pessimist has no desire to be surprised. The cynic is ever hopeful that this time, things will be different (despite knowing the odds).

So who is the opposite of the cynic? It is not the optimist, for they are static, just the same as the pessimist; they both look down the long uncertain road ahead, and see the light at the end, one sees sunlight, the other the on-coming train. The cynic is waiting, hoping for sunlight, and expecting the train. Who sits with them in that uncertainty?

My friend said, “Faith.” And she was correct.

Faith is that which sustains people in times of uncertainty. Faith is not optimism; it doesn’t promise that everything will work out for the best. Faith is an abiding belief in the future, that when the road is long and dark, something warm and safe awaits at the end of the road. Faith never promises a journey absent of strife, danger, and suffering. Faith promises that one can always take another step; look how far you’ve come.

The cynic and the faithful sit together in the dark, they know the odds. They know that the road is long and dark, and they both hope for the best. The difference is that the faithful knows the strength of hope. They know that hope is capable of sustaining someone, so long as you are a true believer.

The cynic, by contrast, is not quite strong enough. The cynic knows what hope tastes like, but doesn’t know how to make it grow, does not know how to harvest it, how to bake it into what they eat.

On days when I have to attempt great works, I sometimes wish I could have the strength of the faithful. There is a certainty to faith, to optimism, to pessimism that can seem enviable.

On every other day, I welcome the spark of doubt that lives within my cynicism. It is a balancing act, a middle path. The cynic can dream of heaven and keep their feet on the ground. One must be able to see clearly to know what is broken and one must have tasted hope to know what is possible.

Without cynicism, I would not be able to do the things I dream of doing. Cynicism is both that which arms to me examine how we have failed as a people, as a species, and where we have done wrong, it is the expectation of being beaten down, of being lied to, of finding victims and perpetrators. But it is also cynicism that makes me believe that we can do better, that we can improve, that we can apologize and heal.

I’m not sure I recommend it. The cynic is always expecting disappointment and, unlike the pessimist, they are not ready to accept it. But it’s a fighting spirit; still hoping for the best, despite their expectations.

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