19 March 2012

The Psychological Junk-Food: Cynicism

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.


  1. Dan

    I came here from the Jesus Creed, after your response to my comments. I like this post because I'm a cynic.

    So, where do you plant churches? My daughter is married to an EFree plant pastor in a neighboring town. I'm cynical because of the way they are treated. It isn't easy but, I'm keeping on.

    Thanks for the work you are doing.


    1. Hey Fred,
      Thanks for wandering over. I'm a planter in the city of Syracuse. Part of my story is how Jesus had to do surgery on my soul regarding anger, bitterness and the cynicism it leads to. I've been rocked pretty hard over the years by Christianity but the habit of rebuking cynicism and disciplining myself to hope has been a life-long pursuit.

      In planting a church I've run across loads of church planters and parishioners who have an axe to grind because of how they or someone they love has been wronged. The only answer I have that keeps restoring fresh hope and trust in my life has been to come back to Jesus; embracing the way He loved and even how places hope in us to be His people even though we wrong Him in many ways.


  2. Loved this blog. Quite humbling to read.
    I came here via Frank V's shameless blog promotion day.
    Cheers bro.

    1. Thanks Dallas.
      Humbling to live out as well.

  3. "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."

    Yes. (deep sigh) I struggle with this. I think cynicism is healthy skepticism gone very sour. I love this post- came over from Frank Viola's blog.

    Why is it that the idealists are so quickly turned into the cynics? Maybe because we want things to be ideal so bad that it just deeply mars us when we get smacked with reality?

  4. Solid Stuff. I think there is a needed distinction between questioning and cynicism and that line is often blurred and hard to see. I am certainly guilty of it.

    Social media (particularly Twitter) is a breeding ground for cynicism, both in our exposure to lots of different opinions and our platform to voice our own. Often these mediums aren't good for my soul...