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Confession of a Cynic

Cynicism is easy, fun and hey, I was born this way. So why was I starting to feel so rotten?

What is a cynic? A man who knows the cost of everything, and the value of nothing.

~ Oscar Wilde

I was disgusted by Sally’s unbridled enthusiasm. She was always smiling, always positive, and so unbelievably naïve she made me want to stick a fork in my side. So when she told me she was going to become a Continental singer for the summer, touring the country performing Christian songs in churches with other utterly peppy and dramatic collegians, I shouldn’t have been surprised. That figures, I huffed to myself. My eyes rolled so fast my stomach did flip-flops.

During the summer I kept up with Sally through a few of her breathless letters “from the road” and updates from her mom. Touring was soooo strenuous, apparently. “We’re in a different church every night,” she would write. “Traveling by bus is no picnic,” another letter said. “I’m eating so much chocolate cake I could die!” she exclaimed of the meals she ate in the homes at each tour stop. She talked about how God was ministering through the group’s performances, and all God was teaching her through the experience. Blah, blah, blah…

With impending dread I observed the date in August when Sally and her band of merrymakers would perform at our home church. “Of course I can’t wait for all of my friends to be there,” her mom told me she was saying. I knew that the pomp and circumstance and “Up With People” idealism would be nearly unbearable — and I’d have to sit through the whole thing. Ditching the show was not even an option, so when the night came I begrudgingly took a seat in the rear of the sanctuary. I only survived the indignity of being in that audience by mocking the cheesy choreography and costuming. Sally was thankful I’d come, of course, and shared her appreciation of my friendship when we talked after the show. We were good friends, Sally and I — but I wouldn’t have been caught dead standing on that stage.

I don’t know when it was, but somehow I began to see the contrast between Sally’s worldview and my own. She was full of enthusiasm, full of ideas, and always saw the best in people and in life — and that made me want to puke. Meanwhile, I was a cynic, through and through. It was my job to quench the spirits of those I deemed overly cheerful. I was an all-knowing sage who called into question everything outside of my immediate experience. I don’t know why Sally even hung out with me. But I do know that through our friendship I came to see that my cynicism would better be referred to as sin-icism.

A cynic is a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions, who disbelieves or minimizes selfless acts, or who is distrusting or disparaging of people’s motives. A cynics might also be a contemptuous person who is sneeringly insolent toward others. Of course, this definition makes cynics seem like they’re complete jerks, and they don’t see themselves as such. I know because I am a cynic who is trying to reform. I never saw myself as bitter or insolent. On the contrary, I believed my cynicism was a positive character attribute. In my ignorance, I thought I was offering the world a service with my barrage of mockery. “I’m just being realistic,” I’d say when someone bristled when I shot down an idea. Now I see that my cynicism was cancer posing as conscience.

Before I drag cynics through the mud too much (we’re a tough crowd that doesn’t take kindly to being dissed), I’ve got to admit that it’s easy to be a cynic. Consider some of the everyday realities we members of humanity must live with. Here’s a list I’ve compiled of what I consider the top 10 things that’ll drive a person to cynicism.

Top 10 Things That’ll Drive a Person to Cynicism

Anything having to do with cheerleaders — cheerleaders may be a part of the reason that cynicism gains momentum in adolescence.

Washed up bands that get together for reunion tours.

Graduation speakers and singers — blind idealism and youthful wisdom at its most dense.

Beauty pageants — if you’re in close proximity to a cynic when they crown the pageant winner, be careful that you don’t get barfed on.

Rock groups that “sell out.” — If you sit around with your friends and lament the bands that “used to be so cool” before they went “mainstream,” you’re exhibiting cynical behavior.

Camp conversion experiences — When “Kumbaya” has been sung for the gazillionth time and kids who backstabbed each other the night before are crying all over each other, the most open-minded person can develop a cynic’s heart.

Regis Philbin.

The President’s State of the Union Address.

Celebrity marriages, or celebrities entering rehab.

Boy bands.

In my experience, my cynicism is directly related to my bent toward critical thinking and my superiority complex. I do have a more critical nature, for better or for worse, and it causes me to think twice about things. I do judge things, people, and events around me and compare them with what I hold to be true, doing my best to base my understanding of truth on God’s word, the Bible. These are personality traits that make me who I am, and they are traits I think I have in common with other people who tend to be cynical.

But it’s my hellish bent toward pride that turns my otherwise healthy critical thinking into cynicism. Take boy bands, for instance. It’s hard for me to believe that there are people who think boy bands are wonderful. I’ve never listened to them, and am not a rabid fan of performance-oriented pop music, or wailing tween grrrls who are. Thus, my temptation is to judge boy bands as lame, even though the pop groups are clearly enjoyed by many people. The whole boy band “thing” is completely outside my experience. As a cynic, my tendency is to make myself judge. Therefore, the mere existence of boy bands gives the cynic in me the heebie-jeebies and elicits disdain. And so, those innocent people or things whose only crime is their existence outside my experience are condemned.

My critical nature and my arrogance were the two key ingredients that made me a sneering killjoy to those people who graciously called me a friend. Of course, many of my friends joined me in cynicism and together we ranted, laughed, and nudged each other at the inane antics of the buffoons around us. We wore our cynicism with pride and were aloof, nonchalant, and above it all. We had it, while others didn’t. We got it, no one else did. We were the cool ones — you could be one of us, or you could be lame.

And it was fun. Cynicism is most fun when it’s done in a group, and the peer pressure of a group of cynics is almost impossible for the non-cynic to resist. There’s no comeback for cynics because they revel in offering the problems to possible solutions. Find an especially caustic cynic, someone who’s really known for it, and ask her what she thinks about Los Angeles Laker’s center Shaquille O’Neal, who recently purchased a van with a wheelchair lift for the family of a young disabled fan that he didn’t even know. “It’s a publicity stunt,” the cynic might say. “I could see how his obtuse fans would think he’s a hero for this crap,” another might reply.

No one can win in a conversation with cynics. It’s just too easy to question goodness. I’m not saying that I know Shaq’s motives, but neither does anyone else. And is it not commendable for a multi-millionaire to help a family in need?

The cynic in me started unraveling when I realized that I wasn’t a safe person for even my friends, or anyone else, to be around. People couldn’t come to me with honest and unbridled enthusiasm anymore because I was too snide to appreciate it. I didn’t even know how to value someone’s joy and that separated me from them. I also realized that my cynical friends couldn’t enter into my joy. I felt the sting of their comments, and was often frustrated when I exposed myself by offering a feeble solution to a problem, only to have the “weakness of my thinking” shoved back in my face.

When I could no longer value things that were truly good, I knew I had to change. Now, while it’s sometimes still a challenge to appreciate things outside of my experience, I try to have a humble enough perspective to remind myself that I am not the center of the universe — as much as my pride tells me I am.

Copyright 2001 Marshall Allen. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Marshall Allen

Marshall Allen is a journalist in Pasadena, Calif. He and his wife, Sonja, have two boys.

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