See­ing through cyn­i­cism

Cyn­i­cism is a de­fence mech­a­nism that holds us back

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - BREATHING SPACE - WITH KATIE BYRNE

AS a hope­less op­ti­mist, I spend an aw­ful lot of time watch­ing com­mence­ment speeches de­liv­ered to grad­u­at­ing stu­dents at US uni­ver­si­ties. Cyn­ics may baulk, but I can’t help but be in­spired by the nuggets of wis­dom im­parted by peo­ple who learned hard lessons at the univer­sity of life.

Au­thor Neil Gaiman’s rous­ing com­mence­ment ad­dress at Philadel­phia’s Univer­sity of the Arts led to an il­lus­trated book, Make Good Art. Nora Ephron’s 1996 speech to stu­dents at the all-fe­male Welles­ley Col­lege — “be the hero­ine of your life, not the vic­tim” — is still quoted to­day.

And let’s not for­get the poignant life ad­vice dis­pensed in ‘Wear Sun­screen’. The words are com­monly mis­at­tributed to Kurt Von­negut, but were in fact writ­ten by Chicago Tribune writer Mary Sch­mich, who thought it would be fun to write a mock-com­mence­ment speech for her weekly col­umn.

There’s a lot to learn from com­mence­ment speeches, but I al­ways come back to the wit and wis­dom of Stephen Colbert — in par­tic­u­lar the speech that the late-night co­me­dian de­liv­ered to grad­u­at­ing stu­dents of Knox Col­lege in 2006.

“Young peo­ple who pre­tend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cyn­ics,” he told the newly-capped and gowned au­di­ence. “Cyn­i­cism mas­quer­ades as wis­dom, but it is the far­thest thing from it. Be­cause cyn­ics don’t learn any­thing. Be­cause cyn­i­cism is a self-im­posed blind­ness, a re­jec­tion of the world be­cause we are afraid it will hurt us or dis­ap­point us.”

Cyn­ics of­ten think of them­selves as worldly-wise and far-sighted but, as Colbert points out, this ha­bit­ual wari­ness may in fact be a de­fence mech­a­nism that pro­tects them from dis­ap­point­ment.

Of course, cyn­ics would ar­gue other­wise. They’ll tell you that they are sim­ply re­al­ists who can see the world with­out the rose-tinted glasses. They’ll tell you that re­flex­ive mistrust keeps them one step ahead of the game. They’ll prob­a­bly even tell you that hu­mans are fun­da­men­tally mo­ti­vated by self-in­ter­est and al­tru­ism is only self­ish­ness in dis­guise.

There is a sem­blance of truth to all of these state­ments, but trou­ble al­ways arises when we don’t leave room for anom­alies and out­liers. Rather than ex­plore peo­ple’s mo­ti­va­tions on an in­di­vid­ual ba­sis, the cynic blan­ket-dismisses en­tire groups. All politi­cians are cor­rupt. All men are self­ish. All women are crazy.

The dyed-in-the-wool cynic re­fuses to take a leap of faith on any­one or any­thing. They re­mind them­selves that their in-built neg­a­tiv­ity bias has served them well this far and, be­sides, de­fault pes­simism sug­gests as­tute­ness, whereas happy-clappy op­ti­mism sug­gests ig­no­rant bliss.

In short, cyn­ics like to think of them­selves as smarter than the pack — even if re­search sug­gests other­wise.

A study pub­lished in the Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy Bul­letin last month ex­am­ined the lay be­lief that cyn­i­cal peo­ple are more com­pe­tent than less cyn­i­cal peo­ple and con­cluded that they ac­tu­ally do worse on cog­ni­tive abil­ity and aca­demic com­pe­tency tasks. An ear­lier study found that cyn­ics tend to earn less money too.

The draw­backs of cyn­i­cism don’t end there. Var­i­ous stud­ies have linked an at­ti­tude of pes­simism and mistrust to lower self-es­teem, neu­roti­cism and a higher risk of heart dis­ease, de­men­tia and over­all mor­tal­ity.

Cyn­i­cism might feel like a coat of ar­mour to those who wear it, yet study af­ter study sug­gests that the long-term con­se­quences over­ride the short-term ben­e­fits.

Of course, even those who ac­cept that cyn­i­cism is detri­men­tal to their health may have dif­fi­culty over­com­ing it. Like it or not, cyn­i­cism is a world­view that be­comes more en­trenched with age — es­pe­cially for those who de­rive their iden­tity from be­ing the res­i­dent doom­sayer. It’s hard to be vul­ner­a­ble, and it’s even harder when you’ve spent the bet­ter part of your life rolling your eyes.

This is why self-iden­ti­fied cyn­ics would ben­e­fit from ex­am­in­ing their be­liefs around cyn­i­cism as well as look­ing at the times when they felt paral­ysed by it. If you’re a cynic, try ask­ing your­self some hon­est ques­tions. Have you ever felt that your cyn­i­cism about a sit­u­a­tion set in mo­tion a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy? Have you ever hoped for the worst sim­ply so that your Cas­san­dric pre­dic­tions would be proved right?

It’s also worth look­ing back at a time when you weren’t so cyn­i­cal. What hap­pened that made you mistrust ev­ery­thing and every­body? If you learned cyn­i­cism from a par­ent, take a mo­ment to con­sider the ways in which their at­ti­tude may have held them back. Other­wise, just think of Ge­orge Car­lin’s fa­mous ob­ser­va­tion: “Scratch any cynic and you will find a dis­ap­pointed ide­al­ist.”

So­cial cir­cles should be con­sid­ered too. Cyn­ics tend to keep com­pany with other cyn­ics, which of course leads to an echo cham­ber that re­ver­ber­ates with ca­sual con­tempt. If you want to over­come cyn­i­cism, try keep­ing com­pany with those of an op­ti­mistic in­cli­na­tion — if only to no­tice the ef­fect that it has on your over­all out­look.

And don’t worry about be­ing in­doc­tri­nated into the cult of pos­i­tive think­ing. Cyn­ics have le­git­i­mate con­cerns about en­gag­ing with the “reck­less op­ti­mism” that au­thor Barbara Ehren­re­ich warns against, but more bal­anced peo­ple know that they can tem­per bright-sided think­ing with healthy skep­ti­cism. Af­ter all, it doesn’t have to be ei­ther/or; it can be both/and.

Colbert had one final piece of ad­vice for those of a cyn­i­cal na­ture. Try say­ing ‘yes’ in­stead of de­liv­er­ing a knee-jerk ‘no’. “Cyn­ics al­ways say ‘no’,” he told the grad­u­at­ing stu­dents dur­ing his com­mence­ment ad­dress. “But say­ing ‘yes’ be­gins things. Say­ing ‘yes’ is how things grow.

Say­ing ‘yes’ leads to knowl­edge. ‘Yes’ is for young peo­ple. So for as long as you have the strength to, say ‘yes’.”

Cyn­i­cism is a self-im­posed blind­ness, a re­jec­tion of the world be­cause

we are afraid it will dis­ap­point us

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