Giving Up on Cynicism
A while back I used to tutor high school kids trying to up their SAT scores. My smartest student came to us breezing through his honors and AP classes, and his first half-hearted attempt at the SAT got him more than 2200 out of 2400 possible points. He was the top of his class and had a great future ahead of him.
And he was incredibly cynical about it.
Maybe you experienced the same sort of adolescent cynicism as my student:
“No one really means what they say. Society is a shell game. Alas, only I know this hard truth, but I am strong enough to bear it. If you get it too, well, you still don’t get it as much as me. And now it’s time to listen to some moody music.”
Seeing this level of cynicism from such a promising young guy, well, frankly, it ticked me off. So I assigned him a paper. I told him he had to tell me about the history of cynicism.
The first thing he found out was this:
“Cynicism” started with ancient Greek, “capital-C” Cynics, the so-called “stray dog philosophers” of the ancient world. These are the guys who would make their homes in trash cans in the mall food court, neglect all forms of personal hygiene (and not just product, mind you), and verbally assault passersby about the horrible fakeness of their workaday lives.
They believed effective ways to reach people with their message were to expel bodily fluids on people who argued with them, to leave scatological commentary in the middle of the public theater, and to make obscene gestures at nice folks who had never hurt anyone.
Naturally, these performance artists were all the rage.
The greatest of all the capital-C Cynics was Diogenes. This is a man who wandered through the market square, squinting in broad daylight, holding a lantern to find his way. When asked what he was up to, he said he was looking for an honest man.
Diogenes was so disgusted with the fakeness of society that he lived in a second-hand bathtub. His only possession was a wooden bowl, until he saw a slave boy drinking water from his cupped hands. Diogenes smashed his bowl.
Even Alexander the Great was fascinated by Diogenes. The story goes that Diogenes was philosophizing to record crowds at an off-year version of the Olympics when Alexander caught sight of him. Alexander, conqueror of the known world and student of Aristotle, requested a private audience. You can imagine what Diogenes thought of that.
In one version of the story, Alexander eventually found him sunbathing in a field. When he approached, Diogenes told Alexander off. He said, “Get! Out! Of my! Sunlight!”
In another version, Alexander found him sifting through human bones in a graveyard. Diogenes told him he was looking for Alexander’s dad’s bones, but couldn’t tell them apart from the bones of slaves.
Alexander was impressed. He said that if he wasn’t Alexander, he’d want to be Diogenes.
And those were the old school, capital-C Cynics.
The bad thing about old school Cynicism is that it doesn’t taste good with a side order of friends—much less, with a mortgage. Enter Stoicism, a Diet Cynicism that has all the great taste of the regular but is far less filling—and maybe a little less bitter. You could be an independently wealthy Stoic. You could even be the Emperor of Rome.
Stoicism was a “grin and bear it” philosophy. “Of course, it all comes to naught. Of course, it’s all fake.” say the Stoics. “But don’t let it get to you. Try to be reasonable about it all.”
To be a Stoic, you just set aside some time each day to think about how awful everything is. Then, when everything associated with the good life disappears—and it will disappear sooner or later, due to death or tragedy—then maybe you won’t miss it.
I think I’d miss it though.
So the lineage of cynicism goes on down to the 20th Century Existentialists, who modeled their lives on the original Cynics— by braving the hardships of tenured professorships and diets of nothing but coffee and cigarettes. (They were pretty brave!)
When Jean-Paul Sartre, probably the leading existentialist of the 20th century, was faced with Nazi occupation of France, he embraced his angst and ennui and dread by not joining the Resistance so he could write naughty things about Hitler in underground newspapers. (That showed the Nazis!) After the war, he was one of a large group of French intellectuals who advocated for communism and turned a blind eye to Stalin’s purges.
The idea behind existentialism was that life has no inherent meaning, that the only meaning life has is what we give it ourselves, through sheer force of will. Life is marked by anxiety about death, a feeling we are “thrown” into an absurd universe. The hard reality, say the existentialists, is that being reasonable about it all never works in the end. They made the Stoics look positively upbeat in comparison.
We just read a responsive reading from Ecclesiastes, from the Jewish Scriptures. The character who calls himself “the Preacher” in the book of Ecclesiastes starts from a similar place as the existentialists. Tradition holds that “the Preacher” was actually Solomon, giving this agnostic treatise a weight that’s surprising giving its conclusion.
<And I just want to point out that Ecclesiastes is the agnostic book of the Bible. Really, it’s agnostic. There are four verses total that mention God, and scholars agree that these were tacked on after the fact because the book’s agnosticism made people uncomfortable. Don’t believe what the fundamentalists say about the Bible—they don’t really read it literally, and many of their views about the Bible are patently un-biblical. The Bible has all sorts of views about God in it.>
But back to the Preacher. Here’s what the Preacher tells us about himself. He was well off and didn’t have to worry about money. He had in turns explored all the world’s wisdom and knowledge, devoted himself to a life of debauched pleasure, and devoted himself completely to his career.
And reflecting at the end of his life, he starts off his book with this:
Utter futility!—says the Preacher—
Utter futility! All is futile!
What real value is there for a man
In all the gains he makes beneath the sun?
Sounds a lot like a cynic, doesn’t he? Translators have never figured out what to do with that first word. “Utter futility,” one puts it. The King James has it as “vanity.” Others have tried “absurdity.”
The Preacher had tried it all, and found it all wanting. He had become, in a word, a reluctant cynic.
Maybe you’ve tasted reluctant cynicism too. After adolescent cynicism, and after adolescent idealism, the real world takes over. We get workaday jobs to pay the rent, yet we still long for something authentic, something more real than real life.
We can come to feel that putting together real ideals with the real world can’t be done.
We can call it “fake authenticity“: anyone who tries to not be a poser is a poser already. No amount of clothes bought at the thrift store or made out of organic cotton will make us “real”. There is no amount of miles we can put on our Volvos and Priuses that will make us real. There is no farmer’s market or hole-in-the-ground dive bar that will make us really real. We try to do our part. We try to reach back to some pure core that was once there, or reach out in hopes of discovering it for the first time. But in the end, it can all feel like it ends up as trying to make our lives meaningful by shopping for vintage t-shirts and folk art.
What should I do in a closed off world like that? Set up camp in a trash can in the mall food court and start making obscene gestures at soccer moms, like Diogenes? Quit my job and move into a shelter, just to make a point? No, that’s too hard to explain to my in-laws at Thanksgiving. What’s worse, there’d be no way to charge my iPhone.
I have tried hard-core cynicism in my own small ways, and I have found it too demanding. I have tried to live without cynicism and found true authenticity just out of reach—and found partial authenticity grating.
I have tried and failed. I have become a reluctant cynic, a resigned cynic.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been a reluctant cynic, but it’s been a while. I’d like to do more, but it’s not like my small little piece will make a difference. I can see how many other people are doing their small little pieces. And if often looks to me like they’re losing. What’s worse is when they’ve been losing for a while. The worst make fools of themselves, and their causes, while they’re at it. No thank you.
Reluctant cynicism isn’t something we seek out; it seeks us out. When it finds us, we don’t take to the streets or see the light. We shrug our shoulders. We say, “Oh… huh…” and sigh. And then we let the dog out one last time before we lock up the house for the night.
I didn’t want to be a reluctant cynic, and I don’t want to be one now. It isn’t working. I have watched myself giving up my ideals. Anticipating more disappointments, I even learned to fear my ideals. They accuse me.
But there is another flavor of cynicism, a unique flavor, a rich and compelling and frightening flavor. I’m speaking of course of Jesus.
Liberal biblical historians for over two centuries now have been trying to find the quote-unquote “Historical Jesus.” The four Gospels plainly don’t match up when it comes to the details of Jesus’ life. They all have unique stories about him, and even when they tell the same stories, they tell them differently or even contradict each other about details small and large. So who was the “real” Jesus behind all the stories?
There are countless theories. Some paint him as an apocalyptic prophet announcing the end of the world. For others he was a traveling wonder worker who fell afoul of the authorities for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Some scholars see him as a radical political reformer who was executed because he was a threat to the Roman Empire.
At least one biblical historian has called Jesus a “capital-C” Cynic. He notes that Jesus’ base of operations was Galilee, a different province from the Jewish heartland of Judea. Galilee was much more Gentile. It had theaters and other markers of Greco-Roman culture that would have caused riots if the Romans had tried to build them in Jerusalem. It was a melting pot province, and it might have seen some traveling Cynics now and then.
But it was more than that. Like the Cynics, Jesus was homeless by choice. He had, as he put it, “no place to lay his head.” He told his followers that if they hesitated to turn their backs on their families and follow him on the road, they were no followers of his.
And then there were all the things he said. He mocked his opponents for being like whiny children: “We played wedding but you didn’t dance. We played funeral but you didn’t cry.”
He called the Pharisees, competing Jewish reformers, fakers:
“Everything the Pharisees do is done for others to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’”
He repeatedly called them “hypocrites.” In our day, “hypocrites” are people who don’t live up to their ideals, which makes it little more than a synonym for “human beings.” But in Jesus’ world, “hypocrite” meant an actor, someone who puts on a huge theatrical mask and pretends to be someone they are not, in front of everyone. That the theater was considered a Gentile abomination gave his accusation all the more sting. He was calling his opponents inauthentic posers.
But if Jesus was a Cynic, he was also more than a Cynic. He broke and mocked all the rules, but he also taught his followers how to play by them. “Wise as serpents and gentle as doves,” our partner church in Transylvania would remind us.
Remember what he said to the lawyers and scholars—that’s how one scholar translates “scribes and Pharisees”— when they asked him to tell everyone his take on the occupying Roman Empire. He said, “Give to Rome what belongs to Rome, and to God what belongs to God.” Different rules for different games.
When asked why he let his followers gather grain on the Sabbath—which is technically work and not allowed—he replied that the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath. The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law, a motif that shines throughout all the Jewish prophets.
But we know that Jesus did more than mock and castigate.
He said things like:
“Blessed are those who grieve, for they will be comforted.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
“And, blessed are the poor, for they will receive the Kingdom of God.”
The Kingdom of God. It’s probably the key concept in Jesus’ teachings. Martin Luther King, Jr. translates it as “Blessed Community.” Blessed Community is among you, Jesus says. Blessed Community is within you, he says.
Most of his parables are about Blessed Community.
“Blessed Community is like yeast, which a person took and worked into fifty pounds of dough, until all of it was leavened.”
It’s almost as though Blessed Community is contagious.
A blogger paraphrased the parable like this:
“Blessed Community is like a latent computer virus that infects a mainframe and spreads throughout the entire [network], slowly hijacking every machine from the inside out.”
It’s a unique translation.
Even if it’s all fake, Jesus seems to be saying, even if the deck is stacked against us no matter what we do, Blessed Community happens anyway.
Blessed Community breaks through.
Even the Preacher in Ecclesiastes could be on board with that. In the middle of his cynical tract, he writes the beautiful poem we read today.
“…there’s a time to be born AND a time to die…”
“…a time to weep AND a time to laugh…”
And Jesus might not have liked this one judging by his mockery of the scholars and lawyers of his day, but
“…a time to mourn AND a time to dance.”
Reluctant cynicism is a stop-gap solution, a last ditch effort to avoid despair. Or it’s at least a whistling in the dark. If I confront the shadow, maybe I’ll lose. But if I don’t confront the shadow, maybe there isn’t a shadow. But I’ll know I’m just pretending, just faking it. I can’t win.
Maybe I should just give up on it all.
Maybe I should give up though—give up on my cynicism. But I’m not sure I know exactly how. I suspect it involves something of a leap of faith.
The problem with leaps of faith is that I don’t know what’s on the other side, or even that I’ll get there. I’m afraid what I’ll find isn’t hope, but despair.
But I’m tempted. The prospect of giving up on cynicism, however daunting, is promising. I’ve always wanted to embrace my values head on. I believe in them, after all, and they’ve steered me right in the past.
And I’ve seen in my life that Grace does happen, that Love does happen, that Blessed Community does happen. Sometimes when I least expect it.
But, still, the fear lingers.
I guess I’ll just have to take that leap of faith out of cynicism. And see if Blessed Community is on the other side.