Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Cynicism

I have always been a slight cynic. Not in a sneering, told-you-so way, but in a rather regretful, resigned fashion. My cynicism comes and goes a bit, depending on what's happening and, frankly, what frame of mind I am in. Although I have always consciously worked by 'values', I often find these lofty flowers choked by the weeds of doubt about people and their essential natures.

Of course, human nature is a many and varied thing. I suspect that is what you learn as time progresses. Huge optimism, or indeed pessimism, is misplaced. Talking about human nature in a blanket way is a bit naive. My own journey has been, I suspect, one from being ultra-positive about motives and intentions - to a place where, on a good day, I can spot the subtleties of people's character quite well and reasonably quickly.

As one becomes more acquainted with the light and shade of human character, it is important, I find, not go negative, assuming people are just self-maximisers. Some people are, in many ways, assholes, but these traits often live side-by-side with other, more attractive ones.

When I look at the folk I really like, and seek to emulate, they are not necessarily the angels, but people who accommodate a variety of traits and, in a self-aware way, stay true to their essential nature while not being a slave to it. So I now like go-getting, self-promoting types, as long as this is leavened with self-awareness and a commitment to scraping off the rougher edges. In a way, I have a lot more time for this type of person than the unthinkingly generous.

All of this, of course, comes back to one's relationship with oneself. One of the attractions of Christianity, and of religion overall, is that it encourages us to embrace what C.S. Lewis termed our 'shadow self'.

It starts with the idea that we are flawed - which we all are - but also says it is OK to be this way as long as we take conscious steps to address it. I stop at the idea that only unconditional surrender to God will successfully address this issue - my point is more about the ultimate message that although we are all, to a point 'bad', we can also, simultaniously, not be a lost cause.

Work and life in one's 40s bring one up against one's nature quite a bit, I find. There's the back-breaking financial, social and emotional obligations of parenting and marriage. One is both trying to build a future and to live for today at the same time, aware of the half-time whistle about to blow.

It is tempting, often, to just look after yourself when you're carrying so much with you. You're also, as I have been saying, more worldly wise. You don't have the same blind-faith any more. You know that beneath any surface a lot more lurks, much of it never-to-be-know. And you have to navigate the iceburgs of human nature while appreciating both their beauty and their danger.

Go negative and you sail away from them altogether and you miss the best of life. Most of my 'highs', come through communion with others. But some of my lows have come through a dawning realisation that somebody isn't all I hoped they were and why-oh-why did I believe in them?

Overall, cynicism, while tempting and psychologically comforting is, I think, the wrong way to go. For you, for others, for happiness, for productive work - whatever. Societies based on deep scepticism tend to be low-trust ones and become self-fulfilling prophesies. But blind optimism is wrong too. We cannot base our society, our institutions or our workplaces on the notion that people will always do the right thing. This too is psychologically comfortable, but naive.

Instead we have to get comfortable with the complex reality of our 'grey' natures, the blend of whatever we have been born or nurtured to be. We also need to extend this comfort to our dealings with others.

Being human is, I am still learning, about accepting my own messiness and that of others. It is also about understanding that either delight or disappointment aren't the only two ways to feel about people.

And, finally, that if the cloud of cynicism isn't to settle, it is very important to work out where on the grey scale your key people are, and how you're going to deal with that.

1 comment:

Ben Brabyn said...

Hi Craig - interesting post exploring the effects of age and experience on perspective. There is some great advice for people judging how much store to place in the people around them given by the Fool in King Lear: http://www.brabyn.com/2011/03/wise-advice-from-fool.html