Evolving beyond cynicism

“It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.” G. K. Chesterton.

Like many teens, I was taken when I read the first lines of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” in high school:  “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”   There seemed to be something quite sophisticated about the cynicism and just reading it I felt like I was smarter than others.

I continued along this line of thought for some time.  Somewhere after the birth of my daughters, though, I realized the truth:  That just wasn’t really me.  Over time, I began to understand that I had lost some of what I really believed in because it’s much easier to be a successful critic than to create something worth criticizing.  Now, I’d say that if being earnest makes someone less than sophisticated, if I’m a true believer, then so be it.

But I also think there was a more universal dynamic at play, which is why I’m writing this.  Going through a period of disillusionment may be part of the growth process, but I like to think that coming out of that period is a next step.

I can see why it might be attractive to remain cynical.  It is much more difficult to live up to ideals than to live in their opposition.  It’s also less risky to look for and expect the worst.   By keeping a sour demeanor, we can avoid risking an unreturned smile.   To see the flaws, to cast the jaundiced eye, to laugh derisively — these are all very easy.

I am not qualified to play amateur psychologist, but I think that by expecting the worst, we avoid our fear of the disappointment we might experience were we to dare to hope.

Assuming I’m right, if you accept my premise, what practical value is there to this observation, and how might we use it for our own self-development?  It’s simply this:  If you want a real challenge, decide that you will be daring enough to expect the best of yourself and of others.

I see people at my company every day who offer up themselves and their ideas for how we can be a better company.  They are not reacting to others, but acting on behalf of their best thinking.  In short, they are doing what our company is paying them to do.  Whether I agree or disagree with the particulars, I respect these people as leaders and feel privileged to listen.

Whatever your position, you can be an instrument of encouragement.  Step up and make other people better than they would be without you in their life.  Change the subject when it turns toward gossip.  Bring out the best in others.  Lead through example, and don’t be afraid to appeal to what’s good.   In doing this, you’ll see that as you strive to make others to be better people, you’ll be a better person yourself.


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