Inching Toward Cynicism

Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what the heck is really going on.”  — Mike Royko

Cynicism gets a rough knock these days — it seems trendy to dismiss as merely sarcastic world-weariness the disposition to express the truth without varnish. Read up on quotes about cynicism; overwhelmingly, the aphorists seem opposed to it. Apparently everyone wants to seem positive, as if mere positivity were some sort of enlightened state of consciousness that allows its adherents to pierce the dark mist of bad attitude and thereby chart a pothole-free course to happiness, love and success.

Yet dismissing cynicism out-of-hand may be more irony than prudence. Royko probably captured it best: Relentless optimism in the face of experience isn’t virtue, it’s ignorance. Of course, a “been there, done that, doesn’t work” demeanor — the core of caricatured cynicism — may be taken to extremes. To bitterness, even. Such should be avoided. Nevertheless, an authentic cynicism that views the world as it is, without the artificial flavor of either saccharine or bitters, proves more helpful than harmful.

Cynicism, I think, is experience with (and acknowledgement of) the negative. When you’re working on a project that consistently fails, for example, merely being positive isn’t going to fix the problem. When the problem’s roots draw nourishment from politics, or other barriers sourced from human behavior, the temptation to overlook those barriers and instead find some external problem that can be wished away with magically happy thoughts isn’t going to affect the real world.

Cheerleaders for positivity frequently overlook human psychology as a contributor to failure or conflict. The optimist sees nothing but good intentions and assumes that problems relate to poor communication. Never is the possibility acknowledged that the public pronouncements and private motivations of others may not be in sync. Never is the possibility acknowledged that pre-rational conflicts in long-term goals or ethical paradigms affect people’s behavior. Never is the possibility acknowledged that things that are hard may well prove not worth doing.

Instead, we must always smile, be cheerful and remain optimistic. Even when experience screams for an alternate course.

I’m not a negative person by disposition, but when I see the same people making the same mistakes and pretending that happy thoughts will conquer all, then … I’m left to doubt whether they really understand what the heck is really going on.

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