The three cures for cynicism
“Singing, holy Toledo I can’t see the light anymore
All those horizons that I used to guide me are gone
And the darkness is driving me farther away from the shore
Throw me a rhyme or a reason to try to go on.”
— Kris Kristofferson, “Shipwrecked in the Eighties”
In the past two columns, I’ve given you my annual Cynic Awards, the list of things that happen in the political world that make you just want to chuck it all and give up democracy for whatever dictator happens to be convenient.
But, perhaps the biggest cynic award should go to myself for creating this list in the first place. You see, cynicism has a way of feeding on itself. If you aren’t careful, you can talk yourself right into inaction and complacency.
So, perhaps it is useful to devote some time to the cure for cynicism. I don’t pretend to have a panacea for our broken democracy. At times, if you understand that you aren’t alone in the world — that there others who feel as you do — you can believe that there is hope after all.
It is important to note here that hope is different from optimism. Optimism is thinking that things are going the right direction, based on some evidence that you believe to be based in reality. At times, any rational person loses their sense of optimism.
Hope is different. Even if you’re convinced the world is going to hell and getting there soon, there is hope. Because regardless of the situation, there is always hope. Events that we can’t predict can change the world in a heartbeat, often for the better.
The first cure for cynicism is simple: Get involved. Do something to make the world a better place. It almost doesn’t matter what it is, just pick something. You may not find you’ve changed the world on a global scale, but if you can just make a small part of it better, do so. Volunteer in a soup kitchen, pick up trash on the road, lick envelopes for your favorite political organization, whatever the cause may be, join it. Even if you don’t see the impact of your work, you’ll make connections with others that can’t help but reduce your cynicism.
The second cynicism cure is art. Expose yourself to art of various sorts. Art doesn’t just connect us to the outside world, it makes the different parts of our brain connect with one another. It doesn’t matter what kind of art it is, just pick something. For some, the visual arts assuage the mood.
For me, other types of art do the trick. Comedians aren’t just there to make you laugh, they help you connect with the world by exposing its many contradictions. The best may be the late George Carlin, whose acerbic wit makes me feel someone sees the world through the same distorted lens I do. For contemporary comedy, listen to Christopher Titus or Dylan Brody or whoever makes the connection for you.
But, even more for me it is music. There are just some artists whose lyrics and melodies break down all the barriers and lift my spirits. It’s not that they solve the world’s problems, but they let me know that someone out there sees them the way I do. Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller and Iris Dement are among those whose work can change my perspective from dark to light.
This brings me to the third cure for cynicism: Children. If you are ever feeling that there world is a hopeless place, just spend a little time with a child. It has been said so many times that it’s become cliché: Children see with new eyes, with innocence that restores our hope.
We may not leave them the world in as good a condition as we’d like, but the fresh perspective children bring to it allows us to believe that they may take our lemons and turn them into something we never thought of. We think we’re bequeathing them intractable problems, but their optimism and creativity will help them turn them into opportunities.
Sometimes, the cures for cynicism can be combined. A while back, I was in the car listening to Kristofferson singing “Shipwrecked in the Eighties,” the song I quoted at the top of today’s column. This song is probably the best encapsulation of disillusionment I’ve ever encountered, and I was singing along, my mood lightened a bit by hearing someone express my thoughts more eloquently that I could.
My mood was interrupted with a voice from the back seat; my then 4-year-old son piped in with his own version at the top of his lungs: “Old McDonald Had a Farm!...”
Who could remain cynical in the face of that?
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at email@example.com.