The price of cynicism

“We cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose…Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.“
- Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

I was talking with a friend at the gym the other day when he volunteered, “Randy, my goal is to wake up one day and be a little less cynical than the day before.”  I appreciated his honesty as well as his self-awareness.  Cynicism permeates our culture, and at least my friend is aware of how his life is affected by this disposition.

Cynicism is defined as “An attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others”.  I don’t know when the United States became so cynical.  I would assume that it must have come after World War II, because I don’t see how we could have met such a huge challenge without a sincere belief that what was being asked of us by our leaders was indeed what was needed to win.  I sometimes listen to old radio programs in which the commercials have an inspiring tone of “we’re all in this together and we can do it”.

In fact, there was a brief time after Sept.11, 2001, when I thought cynicism might have suffered a great blow. It seems during that time we were willing to linger just a little after asking, “How are you doing?”  We had a real interest in being our brother’s keeper, even if just in a small way for a short while.  Alas, after seeing the U.S. Congress sing together on the steps of the Capitol, it was long before they returned to the status quo.

But my purpose isn’t really to rail against society.  I would instead ask you to consider how this environment might affect you.  It’s fully understandable if you’ve become a little jaded.  I think, though, this can take a toll on a life.

Companies spend a great amount of money on leadership events where employees hear inspirational speeches on how a winning attitude can make a difference in the company’s success or how managers can spur direct reports to fulfill their potential.  I’ve often wondered what happens to this material?  Sometimes it seems the words disappear into some ether, never to become manifest in the words and actions of the target audience.

I think what is happening is a mind game where we sometimes seek safety from disappointment by assuming the worst of others.  The problem with this is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Selective perception comes into play and we see only what we’re expecting to see.  We dwell in a negative place to avoid feeling negative and, in the process, cut off our nose to spite the face.

Perhaps a belief behind such attitudes is a misunderstanding that those who expect others to treat them fairly are naive and will be taken advantage of.  In truth, limiting our field of imagination to a subset of possibilities actually has the potential to render us less effective.  If I had told you 15 years ago that there would be an online encyclopedia that could be edited by anyone and was generally regarded as accurate, you might not have believed it.

Abandoning cynicism doesn’t mean turning off your brain.  As former president Ronald Reagan said, you can “Trust but verify.” But I think it does mean giving the individual the benefit of a doubt.  Maybe you are suspicious of used car salesmen (or maybe not), but you can deal in a sincere way with any particular used car salesman.  After all, you aren’t going to buy the car because he or she says it is of sound quality — are you?  You will get the car checked out first.  But by not walking into the dealership with a suspicious attitude, you’re doing yourself the favor of enjoying the process, being fully in the moment.  You are giving yourself the opportunity to actually experience what is going on without the filter of some past unpleasantness.

Mark Twain said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”  Yes, we’ve been deceived.  We’ve had people let us down.  But if we’re not willing to give others the benefit of a doubt, to take people at face value, we risk losing much of the joy of life.

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