Traditional cynicism is a worthy and even noble world-view -- up to a point. We cynics value truth and integrity, so it’s only natural that the ways of the world make us bristle. Furthermore, we’re perfectly justified in our bristling. (Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.) And believe me, traditional cynicism offers multiple benefits to the true believer:
- the rare opportunity to live in harmony with your values
- freedom from self-deception
- immunity against faddish "groupthink"
- development of an independent, contrarian mind and spirit
- realistic expectations from a less-than-perfect world
- self-protection against disappointment (we already know what to expect, don’t we?)
- the joy of using irreverent humor to retaliate against our oppressors
So what’s not to like? Well, traditional cynicism has its downside, as you’ve probably come to realize if you’ve been a practitioner for several years. Alienation, depression and pervasive pessimism seem to be the true cynic’s lot. The good doctors have been telling us that all those negative emotions don’t exactly do wonders for our health. In fact, I’ve read that cynics are almost four times likelier than non-cynics to keel over from heart disease. (Seems unfair, but what else can a cynic expect?)
On top of that, traditional cynicism can blunt our ability to take action. If we believe that all our efforts are predestined to fail in an unfair world, what’s the point of doing anything? Why not just curl up in our dens and hibernate through life?
We cynics shouldn’t resign ourselves to a life lived in the shadows. I don’t want to lead you toward nihilism, despair and premature cardiovascular complaints. We cynics deserve happiness, at least in moderation. We deserve to prosper and prevail. Our stumbling, godforsaken world needs us now more than ever. But here’s the million-dollar question: how do we live more positively without renouncing our integrity?
Let’s look at some existing alternatives to cynicism.
We all know people who glide through life on a perpetual wave of optimism and high spirits. Or people who compromise their integrity to survive. Or those who pour all their energy into a single half-demented cause. All these people have found a way of life that works for them (but probably wouldn’t for us). Let’s examine their beliefs and lifestyles.
Realists are generally well-adjusted and successful, because they shun ideals and accept the world as it is. They also tend to be amoral and indifferent to justice. They’ve adapted to society so thoroughly that they’ve lost any connection to archaic concepts like right and wrong. Realists often become effective politicians, lawyers and businesspeople, because they grasp the rules of the game and don’t let ethical considerations stand between them and their goals. I have a grudging respect for realists but I find it hard to love them.
Activists devote their lives, or at least significant chunks of their lives, to an all-consuming cause. Global warming, animal rights, abortion, gun control and racial justice are all important issues, but each of them is only a single piece of the puzzle that is life. Focusing on that one piece to the neglect of all the others is distorted at best and dangerous at worst. Activism is a trap because it can easily lead to obsession or fanaticism. Society needs its activists (just as it needs politicians), but it’s not a lifestyle I recommend to anyone who seeks enlightenment.
Optimists enjoy life because they’ve deluded themselves into believing that everything works out for the best. We cynics know better. Optimism certainly contributes to a sunny view of the universe, and there’s nothing wrong with sunshine. But I have to wonder what happens to optimists who lose a child, for example. I suppose they believe that the child has gone straight to heaven. Such beliefs are pretty, but they require a tremendous suspension of both logic and outrage. Besides, congenitally upbeat people miss out on the deeper beauty that embellishes the cynic’s melancholy view of the world. Great literature and art are rarely produced by optimists.
Stoics shield themselves from disappointment by detaching themselves from results. So what if you’ve spent three years of your life writing a very fine book, only to see it rejected by 37 publishers who would have preferred yet another ghostwritten memoir by yet another millionaire celebrity? The stoic is admirably immune to such slights, while the cynic boils inwardly and heaps infamy on the publishing world. Who is the more enlightened of the two? Probably the stoic. Who is better adjusted? Definitely the stoic. Who is right? Why, the cynic, of course. The publishing world is unfair. Willful indifference to adversity and injustice strikes me as forced and unnatural. The cynic’s outrage may be counterproductive and injurious to his health, but at least he hasn’t cut himself off from his truest instincts.
Skeptics use reason to sift through the vast communal basket of received ideas. Like cynics, they’re quick to spot a fraud and toss it into the dustbin. In fact, intelligent skeptics are indispensable members of society -- almost as valuable as the best cynics. We cynics use skepticism when we evaluate our society’s sacred cows and find them wanting. The difference between a pure skeptic and a pure cynic is the former’s near-total reliance on reason. A skeptic, by his very nature, distrusts the passions. And passionless people rarely have fun or make a mark on the world. Cynics achieve a better balance between reason and emotion; we’re more prone to righteous anger, mockery, outrage and other primal forces that can animate us and move us to action (as long as we’re not crippled by our own negativity). We’re more childlike than the skeptics, for better or worse; we demand fairness and honesty from those around us. A skeptic just wants the facts.
Idealists are what most of us were before we turned into cynics. The true idealist is a passionate believer in virtue, heroism and all of life’s romantic possibilities. We cynics typically look back on our idealistic days with a pang of nostalgia. Many of us would still like to be idealists, but it seems there’s no going back; we’ve already seen too much of the world and its sinister operators. The more benevolent cynics harbor a good deal of affection for idealists; we want to warn them, protect them, and prevent them from falling too hard. We hope life won’t crush their spirits, because idealists are the most vulnerable of all thinking creatures. Unfortunately, idealism has its sinister side as well. It pays to remember that the Bolsheviks and Nazis were idealists, too.
Nihilists don't believe in anything, of course. You could say that a nihilist is too cynical even to believe in cynicism. It can’t be a pleasant existence, and I strongly urge you not to go there.
Positive Cynicism: How to keep your integrity without making yourself miserable.
After fifteen years as a professional cynic, I finally concluded that traditional cynicism doesn't make for an especially happy or useful life. Don't get me wrong: I believe cynicism is essential as a station on the road to enlightenment. We need our cynicism to help us see the world clearly and stay true to our principles. But there comes a time when we have to stop grumbling and start living again. Surely there's more to life than being against. What are we for?
Let me introduce you to my newly developed philosophical brainchild, which I’ve dubbed POSITIVE CYNICISM. Simply stated, Positive Cynicism retains all the noblest attributes of traditional cynicism without the liabilities. Yes, you can still enjoy the traditional cynic’s high-minded disillusionment, the rejection of shabby values, the irreverence toward our oppressors, the deep need to think independently of intellectual fashions. But it doesn’t stop there. If it did, we could all sink back into pessimism, depression, bitterness, lethargy and despair. The ultimate goal of Positive Cynicism is more ambitious: to help you build a more rewarding life for yourself and others without compromising your best cynical instincts.
How do you live fully in this world without selling out or sacrificing your cynic’s credentials? I’m convinced that it all starts here: Focus your energy on something you love. It could be writing or painting, launching your own business or helping the needy. It might be something as simple (and as all-consuming) as starting a family, or as complicated and reckless as entering politics. Take a class, teach a class, cultivate your garden and your social life. Meet new people. Rediscover long-lost friends. Find your soulmate. Build your skills. Feed your spirit. Expand your territory.
As your life expands, so will your love of life. You’ll be living on your own terms, so you can be your best self -- not the wretched, productivity-driven clone that society expects you to be. Preserve your individuality, your humor and whimsy and your charming childlike traits. Realize that you might not always be the most popular kid on the block, but never tolerate shabby treatment from others. You’re not a victim. You’re entitled to confront wrongdoers, demand justice and hold your head high.
You’re still free to loathe corporations, government bureaucracy, political parties, mindless pop celebrities, snobs, tyrants, degenerates, fanatics and all other manner of detestable life-forms with which we’re obligated to share this planet. Reject what you can’t tolerate, then seek out everything that delights and improves you. Reward yourself by loving something with a passion. Something good. Something that appeals to your best instincts.
Here are just a few of the things you can love without compromising your integrity:
virtue * valor * honesty * character * humor * creativity * friends * family * community * satisfying work * food * sex (assuming you're old enough and ready enough) * romance * nature * travel * exercise * sports * art * music * classic films * reading * education * meditation * adventure * spiritual quests * truth * freedom * good causes * thwarted souls * kindred spirits * yourself!
When you live with passion, you generate positive feelings within yourself and around yourself. You begin to attract the right kinds of friends and associates. You’ll still be a cynic, but your cynicism will be selective instead of pervasive; you’ll hate only the things worth hating... not life itself, not the good people and kindred spirits who are out there waiting to enhance your existence. You’ll immunize yourself against the traditional cynic’s despair without abandoning the cynic’s creed. You could actually be happy -- thoughtfully happy, not mindlessly happy.
History is full of Positive Cynics. They just didn’t know it at the time.
Think of Socrates, who started by disputing the irrational beliefs of his friends and neighbors and ended up revolutionizing Western thought. Think of Jesus, a renegade provincial preacher who rebuked the religious establishment and transformed countless millions of souls across the world and down through the centuries. There’s Voltaire, who risked his personal security to denounce inhumane institutions and liberate captive minds. Closer to home, Thoreau managed to cause a lasting uproar with his quiet philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Some of the greatest individuals in history qualify as Positive Cynics. They used their cynic’s critical faculties to spot errors and injustices, but they didn’t simply rant in solitude. They had the courage and tenacity to live their beliefs in the open, and the fortitude to prevail. We can’t all expect to prevail in this world, but we can emulate the great Positive Cynics of the past and find strength in their examples.
Start practicing Positive Cynicism in your own life, and let me know how it works for you.
1. Hold fast to your cynic’s insistence on truth and integrity
2. Focus your energy on something you love
3. Regain your passion for life; seek out everything that delights and improves you
4. Expand your terrritory and build a life on your terms
5. Attract kindred spirits into your life
6. Stand up to those who disparage you or your values
7. Be selectively cynical; hate only what's worth hating
8. Emulate the great Positive Cynics and use your beliefs for the public good
I'd like to swap ideas with you and forge our new philosophy together. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll post your thoughts right here on this page. Let’s compile some real-life examples of Positive Cynicism in action. And be sure to tell your like-minded friends about our new philosophy; that’s how we turn an idea into a movement.
I don’t pretend to present Positive Cynicism as the answer to all of life’s conundrums and vexations. Cynics know there are no neat answers. But I’m convinced that we cynics need to start living with a greater sense of joy and purpose. We weren’t born cynical, after all; in most cases our cynicism was thrust upon us. We need to shed some of the negative baggage that’s been weighing us down. Not all of it, mind you -- just enough to help us see that we can enjoy our earthly existence without sacrificing the principles that turned us into cynics in the first place. We can be cynical without being defeatist, just as we can live passionately without being fanatical.
Are you with me? Then let’s build a brave new philosophy based on the love of truth, virtue, justice, humor and action -- a philosophy that can transform our lives and possibly even the world. As cynics, we know the road won’t be easy. As Positive Cynics, we can resolve to enjoy the journey.
All the best,