If you’ve been asked one question about who you are and where you fit in the universe, it was probably posed this way:
“paper or plastic?”
If you’ve been asked two questions about who you are where you fit in the universe, it was probably posed this way:
“glass half-full or glass half-empty?”
It occasionally feels as if the totality of one’s being and posture towards the sometimes predictable and sometimes happenstance occurrences comprising the whole of life on Earth is mostly boiled down to a question of whether or not you think (in cocktail party conversations) these aforementioned predictable and happenstance occurrences to be mostly enjoyable or, perhaps, mostly less so*.
*NOTE: there is always a right answer to this question when asked by a potential employer or someone you’ve just met, and (for future reference) it usually doesn’t involve an elaborate intro like the one I’m about to deliver.
I’ve been a cynic* for much of my life.
*NOTE: this is an example of how not to answer the earlier question in a job interview.
Being a groomsman in your father’s wedding as an elementary schooler can have this kind of lasting effect on the way one sees the world, even if that somewhat chubby elementary schooler could eat as much sheet cake as he wanted at the reception.
For most of my adolescent and early adult life I operated out of a belief that choosing a default posture of pre-emptive disappointment was the only way to keep life from catching me unawares with a terminal diagnosis, a bad grade in Geometry, or a messy brake-up (hypothetically speaking, this life posture doesn’t necessarily provide a lot of nerve to get you over the hump of actually asking someone out). I did have friends, but mostly out of a petri-dish impulse to monitor the progress of people I thought might be pulling ahead of me in the great race towards being impressive at a ten year reunion that no one attends. I made decent grades, was athletic (for a 5’ 9.5’’ white dude), and was quite fond of making people laugh.
Did it work? Are you laughing now? Please don’t answer me.
At the bottom of every landed joke, moderately successful football game, and passed exam was this rush of frenetic energy that would whirr to life and leave me feeling (if only briefly) that my existence wasn’t some tragic loop of waking up in the morning with more acne than I remembered seeing before going to bed. Quite quickly, like all experiences with addictive properties, I soon became wedded to the belief that my fleeting success was actually brought about by the pre-existing presence of disappointing anxiety. I believed that without heaping shame on my self about never making it, or failing, or striking out, or living perpetually in my mom’s basement, that I would actually never make it, and fail, and strike out, and live perpetually in my mom’s basement. Which also means that future success was incredibly dependent upon the immediate snuffing out of that initial endorphin spike following a semi-successful venture into the land of the living in order to return the microphone to the anxious and shaming voice responsible for all my “success”.
Ridiculous as that might sound when you see it written out.
When you understand life to be fundamentally in the disappointment business, and when you grow up in a family system whose limping appreciation for religion is characterized almost solely as something one half-heartedly endures for social connectivity and divine approval (which, much like home owners insurance, is far-sightedly necessary in the wake of catastrophe), it makes perfect sense that you might grow up imagining the most powerful force on Earth (what many folks call “God”) to be mostly just generalized anxiety and profound dissatisfaction dressed up in a white robe.
In light of this, it makes perfect sense to shame yourself internally when you believe that once people discover your origins, your motivations, and your love of bagel bites and Sandler cinema that wholesale condemnation is the only result of these discoveries. It also makes perfect sense to remind yourself you’re better off alone when you believe that the minute you open yourself up to the life of another they’ll immediately begin rearranging your mental furniture in ways that only cause you to repeatedly trip over the ottoman. It also makes perfect sense to remain cynical as to the motivations of well-meaning pastors, prophets, priests, and the divine when you (once again) believe the DNA of the universe is genetically flawed.
However, the biggest log I've found in the eyes of every speck removing cynic, isn’t that we’re risk-averse and scarred from failure, it’s that we’re mostly unrealistic optimists who never found a way of putting flesh and blood on how we understand ourselves, our worth, our value, and our place in the world. Contrary to popular opinion, cynics are full-hearted believers in the goodness of the world (just go with me here), and dare-say, maybe even a fair bit more full-hearted than the “sunny-side-up" set we’re taught from birth to emulate. It’s just that when our questions and concerns about how this eminently beautiful world began ambling off course should have been greeted with a
“why yes, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to notice.”
Or: “sure, I hear that, but I also think…”
Or even: “I see it a bit differently…”
they were instead met with a subtle or not-so-subtle reminder to keep our heads down and “focus on the positive,” which I learned early on was code for “please ignore the wealthy white dude behind the curtain.” When your authorities are suspect and fallible and not all that helpful in your sweaty efforts to correctly fashion a cumber-bun atop your trousers for your father’s second wedding, the command to suddenly feel positively about the world and notice less of its shortcomings in the wake of existential crises both great and small seems decidedly suspect.
Especially when it comes from people representing God.
So, naturally, you spend the rest of your life doubting, and stewing, and scoffing, and self-shaming.
Setting aside nativist words like “should” and “have to” and “raised” and “grandparents” I must admit it’s rather difficult to uncover the origins of why any of us Christians believe in God. When faith is conceived of generously, phrases like “bigger than myself” or “conviction” immediately work their way to the surface, grabbing the microphone and silencing those of us with decidedly less compelling “conversion experiences” (whatever that might mean for you).
However, when conceived of a bit more cynically, a few other voices begin clearing their throats:
Like Frued, who once argued that our need for an all-knowing-never-let-you-down-definitely-on-time-to-pick-you-up-from-soccer-practice-heavenly-deity emerged almost entirely out of the fact that our dad never spoke to us unless we occluded his view of “the game,” or that our mom passive aggressively blamed us for her failure to finish undergrad. In that, humans (uniquely among earth-dwelling mammals) create something wonderfully fantastic to fill the imaginary cul-de-sac in the sky we all long for, as a way of bringing relief to the gaping hole left behind by our (ahem) far more earthy mothers and fathers.
Sure, Sigmund, whatever you say dude.
Or Marx (Karl not Groucho), who believed religion to be the means by which powerful people at the heads of companies, empires, and countries keep the tired and hungry minds of the proletariat occupied with heavenly redemption, namely, so they don't spend too awful much of their time paying attention to the great number of mining accidents and black lungs besieging their shivering and hungry villages.
Obviously, this critique is totally irrelevant in 2017.
Or Weber, who thought religion (particularly that of a Reformed, Protestant flavor) was both motivated by and motivated (in and of itself) an incredibly strong work-ethic among the faithful that, when coupled with a growing free market during the Industrial Revolution, helped spur the rise of capitalism as a viable economic structure in the disintegration of fiefdoms and feudal paternalism. Namely, because one of the chief ways in which Reformed Protestants understood themselves to be among the heaven-bound “elect,” was primarily seen in the economic blessing they received from above. So, the harder you worked, the more you earned, the more sure you could be that God had chosen you for salvation instead of perdition.
I'm thankful American Christianity was finally able to untangle this knot!
Giving these voices an audience, inevitably incurs all sorts of pushback from those saintly optimists among us inexhaustibly touting the power of hope in the face of any and every obstacle. But (the great refrain of cynics both ancient and modern) at some point isn’t it important to notice the water stains on our ceilings and the bruises on our backs? Isn't it important to intimately know the nooks, crannies, and wrinkles of the world we so desperately want to believe in and save? Isn’t it important to ask more from our lives, our partners, our politicians, our schools, our communities, and our God(s)? Not because we don’t believe in them, but precisely because we do; we believe in them wholeheartedly, doggedly, stubbornly, otherwise we wouldn’t ask so much of them. Otherwise, we would simply allow them to be, to exist, to destroy, to maim, to amble off course quietly in the dark. Because they don’t matter, and neither does optimism that’s unwilling to die and be laid in a tomb* because it hoped too strongly, too politically, too concretely, and too specifically to be safe anymore.
*NOTE: I'M TALKIN' BOUT JEEEZUS HERE!
Optimism that silences dissent and releases the pressure of our convictions and beliefs about the way the world should work in favor of a religiously motivated abdication of personal and collective responsibility is quietly laying waste to our churches, our faith, our world, and our God.
When asked about his disruptive work in the fields of nonviolence, education, social-change, and the civil rights movement, founder of the Highlander Folk School and mentor to Dr. King, Myles Horton, had this to say:
“I don’t think you help people by keeping them enslaved to something that is less than they are capable of doing and believing. I was told one time during an educational conference that I was cruel because I made people who were very happy and contented, unhappy, and that it was wrong to upset people and stretch their imaginations and minds, and to challenge them to the place where they got themselves into trouble, became maladjusted and so on. My position was that I believed in changing society by first changing individuals so that they could then struggle to bring about social changes. There’s a lot of pain in it, and a lot of violence, and conflict, and that is just part of the price you pay. I realized that was part of growth—and growth is painful. A plant comes through the hard ground and it breaks the seed apart. And then it dies to live again. I think that people aren’t fully free until they’re in a struggle for justice. And that means for everyone. It’s a struggle of such importance that they are willing, if necessary, to die for it. I think that’s what you have to do before you’re really free. Then you’ve got something to live for. You don’t want to die, because you’ve got so much you want to do. The struggle is so important that it gives meaning to life.”
When conceived of Christianly, cynicism is the most powerful (and dangerously cruel) tool we possess. If our goal as people of faith is to bring the Church back to its senses, its calling, and its purpose, we first have to be willing to admit the Church is ignoring its senses, calling, and purpose, and that more times than not, so are we. The danger of cynicism, as with optimism, is that it lets us off the hook because we either release our responsibility to care for one another to the deus ex machina just off stage, or the man behind the curtain turning the knobs of the system.
The struggle is so important that it gives meaning to life.
However, cynics who respond to the crumbling and oft-ignored chaos of our world with both critique and concrete work for justice in communities, schools, churches, and capitals are sometimes difficult to be around at dinner parties, they're sometimes difficult to listen to, and they're oftentimes difficult to understand. But in my experience, that's what makes them so resilient to death, and silence, and bad news, which if you've been paying attention, are the raw elements making up our world most days.
Or, as the great cynic Jesus of Nazareth once put it: "If you want to save your life, you have to lose it first."
Sometimes losing our faith in the goodness of our systems, our institutions, and our selves, is the only way to go about resurrecting a faith resilient enough to survive death, even death on a cross. Or, as Christian Wiman eloquently put it: “sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms."
The answer isn't less cynicism, less doubt, less struggle, the answer is always more and more and more.