The Cure for Cynicism

With our first child less than 50 days away, my wife and I have been talking a lot about parenting. Particularly, we've been discussing what we anticipate will be our biggest weaknesses as parents. And one of my most notable shortcomings as a person is my cynicism. That's not to be confused with my skepticism. Those words are often used in place of each other, but they mean very different things. Skepticism is related to doubt, while cynicism has to do with trust.

When I described the difference to my wife, she indicated that skepticism was healthy (I've re-programmed her well), but she didn't see any redeeming qualities in cynicism. Puzzled, I replied that if such was the case, I didn't know how to combat my natural distrust of people and their motives. She thought for a second and simply said, "Give people the benefit of the doubt."

It's a handy phrase I've heard many times before, but it never carried the same weight before. You see, trust, as they say, is something easily lost but painstakingly earned. You can't simply start trusting again when someone's let you down. Your confidence in that person has been shaken and now your defenses are up.

To not react this way is to pretend that nothing happened, and not only is this difficult, it's unhealthy. Which is why so many hurt or burned people become cynics, particularly of the church. Society is finally realizing that buried emotions are a bad thing, but this has led to a cultural embrace of cynicism.

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Probably sounds fine to some. If everyone is untrustworthy then it makes sense to develop a healthy, thick skin of cynicism. Be independent, self-reliant; you know, invictus and all that noise. It's a great way to make friends and influence people. And it couldn't be any further from how humanity was designed.

We're dependent beings from birth. From the moment we're conceived to our emergence from the womb, our existence is completely at the mercy of those around us. And even if man were to become an island, he'd still end up naming a volleyball Wilson just to keep him company. We need people and we crave companionship. And just because we don't trust other people doesn't mean that the only one we can trust is ourselves. Because if you're anything like me, you've let yourself down even more than those around you.

So what are we left with? Ignorance only leaves us emotionally repressed, and embracing cynicism hardens us into insular beasts. What else is there? When my wife continued her previous thought, she said to me, "You need to see other people the same way you see me." Even though she, like everyone, has let me down before, I have always given her the benefit of the doubt. As she does for me.

Thus, the only way to cure a lack of trust in people today is to concede doubt regarding what they'll do tomorrow. Can we honestly say without a shadow of a doubt that a 20-year alcoholic will have a drink tomorrow? No. And even though, without fail, I will forget to clean the litter box every day, has my wife lost hope in me? Thankfully, no.

Just because we have reasonably low expectations of what others will do doesn't give us the right to have an unreasonably high regard for what we can know. We all disappoint. But on the plus side, none of us know how disappointing we'll be tomorrow.