When we're young we all lean towards idealism, believing that not only the good but the best is inevitable, seeing the world simplistically: black and white, good and bad. Then eventually we come face-to-face with the bucket of cold water known as reality.
When we're disappointed by people and circumstances the bud of cynicism begins to sprout. Cynicism is really a reaction to disappointment. Either our idealism or our idea about how a situation should work out is met with resistance. When we’re let down and angered we’re faced with how to respond. It’s at this tipping point that our justifiable frustration can turn into a poison that enters our own blood stream. A cynic is a dejected idealist. We begin to think that cynicism keeps us alert to the potential dangers that lurk from the individuals and organizations that try to manipulate us into believing what they say. The cynical voice in our heads convinces us we are more “streetwise.” So we surrender to the cynic inside us.
I've heard it said that, “The problem with being a cynic these days is that it's difficult to keep up.” There is certainly no shortage of targets for the cynic. The Internet-age has accelerated and amped-up our deep potential to be cynical. Someone is always saying something dumb online, saying something exaggerated that gets under our skin, saying something that baits us into a fighting mood.
Like junk food, cynicism begins to be our favorite meal after a while. We lose sight of the long term harm because the short term consumption of this psychological junk food is so tasty. We find some sense of satisfaction in recognizing how bad things are. The expert cynic will point out that things are “even worse than anyone knew."
Cynicism is questioning with a sour edge.
I’m naturally a questioning person. I’ve been asking big questions about everything related to Christianity since I was a teenager. What I’ve discovered is that there is a difference between questioning and cynicism. Cynicism often sneaks up on you, plants its seed and then uses disappointment to fuel its presence in your life. I can notice a subtle spirit of cynicism creeping in on my attitude simply from reading an article that angers me. Honestly, nothing gives a buzz like cynicism and so it feels powerful to give over to it.
When are unaware of our cynical lens we unknowingly embellish the volume of the things we see as problems. I’ve also observed that cynicism can lead to arrogance cloaked in education. It begins to spot holes in others thoughts and plans and responds with “they are ignorant about something I’m educated in.” The problem with this is that all humans will have gaps in their knowledge.
One of the main effects I’ve noticed as a church planter is that cynicism "soaked into a heart" makes it very, very difficult for someone to embrace a vision and give their energy and soul to it. It causes them to keep the vision and mission at arm’s length. It becomes awkward for them to buy in or go all in.
A Tenacious Unnatural Attitude
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:7: "Love… bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." He was speaking of a tenacious-unnatural-attitude that keeps bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring in the face of disappointment with others. It takes serious intentionality and perseverance to do community well. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said "community is something everyone wants but most bail on it when it starts challenging their attitude." I find many young adults are shocked by the practical disciplines love requires on their cynicism while reorienting around community. In my experience one of the glaring community-killers is the psychological junk-good of cynicism.