Conan O’Brien in 2010 hosted his last “Tonight Show” on NBC. In his remarks to the audience he said, “All I ask is one thing, particularly of young people. Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism; for the record it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.”
Those words have stuck with me, particularly because I agree with him about it being an unflattering quality, and partly because I’ve worked so hard to keep that quality in check with in myself.
What is the opposite of cynicism? Surely, it’s not blind optimism. I listened to President Obama speak last night and he touched on his 2008 campaign slogan “hope” and what it meant in the context of 2012. I tried to recall his exact words from then, and needed to Google as a refresher. I think it fits in this conversation: “Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”
We hope plenty. We hope at night, sleeplessly. We hope on drives home, tearfully. We hope on the way to coffee meet-ups with strangers we think could be the future best friend of someone we know, or at least come in and teach a class about something they enjoy. We hope via text message, in person, and through staff meetings. We hope people aren’t alone. We hope people are happy. We hope what we’ve worked on is something, enough, knowing it’s never enough. We hope all the damn time.
And what is this hoping? Do we sit back and cross our fingers behind our backs while we think good thoughts? Do we superstitiously avoid cracks in sidewalks together, holding hands and skipping? Do we cross the street when we see black cats, avoid walking under ladders, curse ourselves for breaking mirrors? For us, hope is the uncomfortable teetering between what we know could be, what we know to be right, what we know to be possible and what we know Others expect will happen.
Tim and I exchanged an email stream back and forth in 2011 about this very thing, the role of the Others. “There’s another kind of cynicism…those people who say ‘welcome back to reality.’ It’s a hopeless sentiment and is a momentum-killer. The only way to overcome that is to A) ignore it and B) build up enough allies that them saying it doesn’t matter anyway.” The Others, I can surmise, speak ill of what we’re doing. Cynics, of course, are often spineless. The ‘Welcome Back to Reality’ phrase is an effort to save face, a last ditch ‘I told you so’, salt poured into a wound we tear open daily. Often, the cynics aren’t actively working to change the situation, but have opinions and criticism and suggestions plenty.
We know that we do, what we’ve worked on, what has and hasn’t sustained is not perfect. While imperfect as what we do may be, as flawed as connections and capstones can turn out, it is a step in the right direction, a direction that isn’t the same as everything else that is out there that keeps people exactly where they’ve always been. I suppose a cynic can layered, as one-dimensional as they often seem. They can be both in complete disbelief that anything hopeful, good, wonderful will happen and they can have a complete distrust of others’ motives, outcomes, or ambition. If they aren’t careful, they’ll become misanthropes.
The opposite of cynicism isn’t blind optimism. Cynicism is pessimism in its nastiest, most spiteful form. It is useless, purposeless and dangerous. It sits and stews in its own filth; it grows and feasts on others for fuel. It infects others, casts doubts in otherwise strong minds. In my domestic life, I’ve been known for leaving pots and pans of food sitting on the stove overnight. Worse, I’ve left bowls of food in the microwave for say a few days at a time (a conservative estimate). On one such occasion in one of our apartments, I went to microwave something, opened the door, and encountered a bowl of food covered with flies and maggots. I had left a bowl of something cheese-based in the microwave, in the un-air-conditioned house for over a week. Cynics moan and don’t do anything about it. They writhe in their own nastiness. Cynicism is the same as the maggot infested bowl of food: toxic and wasteful.
I have been tempted with that dark whisper in my ear, too. Nothing you do will ever be enough. It’s not perfect enough. People are still lonely, aren’t they? Did that change someone’s life, really? Did that even matter? Was it enough? Could more have been done? Could something have been done differently? It directly plays into judgment of ourselves and of other people.
Judgment, another of the three monsters depicted in the picture, is probably the one most present in us. Speaking for myself, it’s definitely the one that affects me the most. Having majored in theology as an undergrad, I’ve always been curious of how Biblical quotes get misconstrued. (See eye for an eye for example) but judgment is another one that we often misinterpret. Judge lest ye not be judged doesn’t mean NEVER JUDGE ANYONE EVER!, it’s more about being held accountable to the same standards. It’s a sort of moral checks and balances.
“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brothers eye.” Luke 6:42
Essentially, take a good hard look at your dirt first before trying to tell someone how they should clean up theirs, and how you could do it better. Further, it’s helping the person remove the debris from their eye, help remedy the situation. Not just letting them squirm with it. (We’ve all had to have someone help locate an eyelash, contact lens, stray bug that was bothersome but we just couldn’t put our finger on it, literally, metaphorically. It often required help, but only after we’ve done our own work first.) Judgment is easy to do. We do it all the time, consciously and unconsciously, and it’s constantly reinforced. If you don’t believe me, the next time you’re in a grocery checkout line, please prove me wrong that the magazines won’t have someone featured in a bathing suit with cellulite!, stretch marks!, divorce!, love-child!, cheating scandal!, financial woes!
While judgment upon others is rude, pointless, and catty, judgment upon oneself is often debilitating. It’s a silent loathing of all the questions I asked above. Was it/I good enough? Will it/I ever be? Self-judgment leads into fear. Digging heels into the ground, immobilization. If cynics criticize and kill momentum, and judgment questions the quality and mode of momentum, fear prevents momentum to begin with. Roosevelt described fear as that “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.”
When I traveled to Rome in 2003, we climbed 323 steps to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica from on the insider. When I reached the top, there was a thin mesh wire structure separating me from the winding tunnel of marbled staircase (safety) and falling to my death on the basilica’s alter below. I begged to turn back and just go back to the ground floor. Someone I was with at the time dragged me to the outside roof, to view St. Peter’s Square from the cupola. I was terrified, shuffling my feet with little movement, forcing smiles in photos, grasping on to people and railings in every photo. Was it worth it? Of course. Was fear the nameless terror? Of course. It’s the same as fear of spiders, clowns, the dark, flying, tight spaces, needles, dentists, or fear of heights in my case. It’s a nameless terror, unreasoning, unjustified.
What do we fear most in this work? What is the nameless unreasoning, unjustified terror that we back ourselves in a corner for, shuffling our feet, clinging to railings? That we’ll be proven wrong? That our work will be deemed silly, pointless, and not worthy? Do we fear it won’t work? Do we fear that people will think we’re hopeless romantics? Incurable optimists? Wishful thinkers? Do we fear that people will condemn us and ostracize us from the cool kids’ lunch table? The fears are irrational, misguided.
What we should fear isn’t our insecurities and questions about what if’s, but the effects of what happens when we let cynics, judges, and fear-mongering take hold. It only serves to cloud our vision and makes the road much more onerous, and intolerably longer.
The 3 Monsters become hungry. Cynicism, judgment and fear prevent us from in the very worst of days, being with present to people and working to chip away, however slowly and heavy the work may be, a systemic approach that people are problems that need to be fixed, and it’s our job to control, supervise, and fix them.
That is not blind optimism, the chipping away. It is hope that the chipping away is working towards something, something a little bit better, never perfect, not complete, but better than what was thought possible before.
And that, we have to be okay with, that it the chipping away might be good enough– cynicism, judgment, and fear aside.
We are not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead. We are not settling for the world as it is, but as we know it should be. Cynics, judgers, and fear-mongers, we have a table reserved for you together just beyond that exit sign. Misery loves company.