On “The Habits of Highly Cynical People”

1342548285858004Rebecca Solnit has a powerful essay in the May issue of Harper’s that gets at something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

In “The Habits of Highly Cynical People,” Solnit writes about what she calls “naive cynicism” — a pervasive cultural tendency to predict the worst, as if somehow that will protect us or make us seem smarter.

“We live in a time when the news media and other purveyors of conventional wisdom like to report on the future more than the past,” writes Solnit, and “use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures.” The problem with this mindset isn’t just that it’s not accurate, but that it “bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.”

I’ve noticed this attitude pervade so many conversations these days, as people assume political movements or other signs of collective interest and action will ultimately go nowhere, so that even if they believe in the goal, they feel no need to actually participate. It’s why so many people don’t even bother to vote. “They’re all the same, what’s the difference?” is a common refrain about political candidates. As if Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton were actually interchangeable.

This “naive cynicism,” Solnit notes, is “first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish.” But refusing to look at the details of one policy or another, or to acknowledge nuances in different positions or values, is really just refusing to engage with reality. Not because the details and differences don’t matter, but rather, because they’re complicated. And to acknowledge those complications and uncertainties makes people feel uncomfortable.

“Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards,” writes Solnit. “But denouncing anything less than perfection as morally compromising means pursuing aggrandizement of the self, not engagement with a place or system or community, as the highest priority.”

I agree with Solnit’s message wholeheartedly, but I’m troubled by her tone. Solnit’s essay suggests a certain contempt for these “naive cynics” who declare activists’ efforts a failure long before their outcome is clear, or assume victory must be immediately visible to be worth acknowledging. But while their view may be simplistic, it’s also understandable.

I have a certain sympathy with cynicism, not of the kind Solnit’s talking about, but the historical kind, the cynicism that’s skeptical of powerful institutions and entrenched traditions, not of individuals’ ability to act virtuously and to effect change. To me, that’s “mindful cynicism.” But I can see how, particularly if you’ve tried participating in collective actions that don’t yield the outcome you’re after, one can unwittingly slide into a more profound cynicism about the possibility of change at all.

It’s a form of hopelessness, really, and it’s not just self-aggrandizement, but also fear that underlies that mindset. It’s a fear of hoping for something better that may not change within the foreseeable future; it’s the fear of looking foolish for trying to change something that often looks like it’s not going to budge. It’s a very natural inclination to look for solid ground to stand on, in a world that’s ever-changing, never standing still. It feels safer to predict the worst for the world, and to focus instead on self-improvement, or at least on making our own lives more comfortable. That may seem, at least, like something over which we’d have more control.

That kind of mindset is ultimately a recipe for misery. Our self-improvement is never good enough, and neither are our material comforts. Philosophers and then psychologists have long understood that human beings need to believe in and strive for something more meaningful — something that transcends ourselves. Naive cynicism – or hopelessness, which might be a more accurate word – discards the possibility of all that. It is profoundly depressing.

At the same time, to proclaim our dominant culture naively cynical, as Solnit does, is to buy into a similar mindset that assumes a static entity. Yes, we’re surrounded by forces that encourage a cynical mindset: simplistic and extremist punditry that boosts individuals’ careers, the pronouncement of disasters and exaggeration of fears that boosts audiences and ultimately ad revenue. But to some extent, even those institutions are on the decline: the proliferation of news sources saps the influence of television stations like CNN or Fox News that peddle cynical sensationalism; and the surprising success of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign suggests a groundswell of support for renewed engagement in civic life, especially by a new generation of voters.

I agree with Solnit that “what we do begins with what we believe we can do. It begins with being open to the possibilities and interested in the complexities.” That applies to the phenomenon of naive cynicism as well. It means not writing off those who feel hopeless, but engaging with them. Which requires first understanding their fear and discomfort, and then, rather than dismissing it, helping them see that a mindlessly defensive response does not serve them — or anyone else.

It’s Not a Package Deal

images-1One of the problems with being a cynic is that, when you’re trying to learn something new, it’s easy to focus on all the things that sound wrong or silly or otherwise questionable and to disregard the entire lesson or experience as a result.

I was sitting in a meditation class recently, for example, when the teacher said something about past or future lives. I don’t even remember what he was talking about -– probably something about karma and our minds -– but it didn’t really matter. My internal alarm bells went off immediately. I thought: “That’s ridiculous. I’m not coming back here.”

The thing is, I know and like this teacher, and I know he’s very good at explaining meditation, its practice and purpose, in an accessible, down-to-earth and engaging way. And I know, from personal experience, plus all the scientific studies backing it up, that meditation can be very helpful. I hadn’t been to that particular meditation center for a while, and I was enjoying being back and laughing along with his painfully accurate descriptions of how absurdly our minds work sometimes, and how they often cause us distress. Until he said the thing about multiple lives. At that point, my internal critic leapt to attention and immediately dismissed the value of whatever it was he was trying to say. I didn’t hear it. And chances are, it was something interesting.

Aware that he was talking to a group of mostly secular Brooklynites like me, the teacher quickly interrupted himself to let people know they didn’t have to believe in past and future lives to learn to meditate or reap its benefits. But I was aware of how easily and quickly my mind was ready to dismiss him and the whole meditation project, simply because the teacher — who was, after all, teaching at a Buddhist meditation center with a big golden Buddha statue behind him — had briefly mentioned something that is a basic tenet of Buddhism.

I’ve written before about how our minds have evolved to focus on the negative aspects of our experience, largely in order to protect us from mortal dangers. The part of the brain that reacts to fear, centered in the amygdala, also steps up when something isn’t physically threatening, but just doesn’t sound quite right. But it’s important to learn to step back a bit, and let the more developed, discerning part of my brain –- centered in the prefrontal cortex -– play its part, too.

I may not believe I’ll have multiple lives to live, although sometimes I wish I did. But I’m capable of distinguishing that piece of the teaching from the larger point, which is that our minds are influenced by all sorts of things –- including past experiences — that we’re often not aware of. Whether it’s something I did in my past life or something my mother said to me in grade school doesn’t really matter. The point is it may or may not be helpful to me, or to anyone else, today. The purpose of meditation is to develop more awareness of what’s going through my mind so I can choose how I want to respond rather than letting unconscious habits choose for me. And one of my habits is letting a cynical mind quash any new ideas that come packaged in or accompanied by something that makes me squirm.

As my positive psychology instructor, Tal Ben Shahar, pointed out in a recent class: “this is not a package deal.” I was in the middle of a week-long immersion for my Positive Psychology certification course, and struggling with some of what at the time seemed like really dumb, pointless exercises. More than once sitting in that lecture hall, I wanted to flee. But it helped me to hear Tal acknowledge that that’s okay. “You’ll hear things here that don’t make sense to you or just sound silly or unconvincing. If you don’t like them, forget about them. Pay attention to what resonates with you, and use it. Leave behind the rest. This is not a package deal.”

It was an important reminder for a skeptic like me. I too easily dismiss things as irrelevant or meaningless because some piece of it doesn’t jibe with me. This aversive reaction may feel immediately comforting, because now I don’t have to bother engaging with new material and can stay safely ensconced in my own cocoon of imagined superiority. But it’s ultimately extremely limiting, and really kind of silly. It’s a bit like dismissing Freud as irrelevant to psychology because I don’t believe in penis envy. But he did develop our modern understanding of the unconscious, which underpins much of our understanding of the human psyche today. So maybe there’s some value in his work after all.

Our culture of cynicism and irony is so focused on mocking and disparaging what we think is wrong that we tend to overlook or outright dismiss ideas that may be really valuable. The criticism might make us sound really clever — especially if we can express it as a witty 140-character commentary on Twitter. But in the process, we may find ourselves flushing a lot of really helpful wisdom down the drain.

The Snark Defense

snark-warningSunday was graduation day for my coaching class. As I boarded the Q train to Manhattan, I was half dreading it. We’d all been asked to make a short presentation about what the program and our colleagues had meant to us. My immediate response was an eye-roll. I hate this kind of thing, I thought – the sappy language, the forced emotions. I managed to fulfill the obligation by finding a kind of clever, snarky poem I could read, and I did get a laugh. Job done.

But as I watched my classmates make their presentations, some of which involved heartfelt displays of acting, singing, dancing, personal poetry and videos, I realized once again that I’d taken the easy way out. And, I realized, I’d lost out in the process.

Hiding behind a wall of cynicism is not just something I do in coaching class. My response to frustrations at work, for example, has often been to withdraw, make snarky comments or otherwise join in a generally negative office atmosphere. While that’s protected me in some ways from taking disappointments personally, it’s also kept me from really engaging in a positive way with some of the really wonderful people who work there.

I don’t know if it’s because I was trained as a lawyer and a journalist, both professions where emotional distance and a critical eye are considered essential to doing a good job. (In the age of online journalism and social media, it’s even worse – the snarkiest posts get the most eyeballs.) Or maybe it’s the way I grew up – my parents were both doctors, another profession where emotional involvement is forbidden, and critical judgment prized.

Whatever the reason, the result is I’m not someone who displays deep emotions very easily. I always though that was helpful, at least professionally – no one wants to be caught crying in the office, for example. But increasingly, I’ve come to realize it’s also an impediment. Sure, I can come up with a snarky response on Twitter pretty quickly (though not nearly so quickly as some), but when it comes to face-to-face communication and connection, with co-workers, classmates or anyone else, it’s a barrier. I’ve also come to realize, mostly through coaching, that genuine connection with other people is something I really deeply value. My snarkiness has been getting in the way.

Not that criticism or sarcasm doesn’t have its place. As Alan Henry puts it in this post I came across: “There’s a difference between being occasionally sarcastic and a little derisive in your head, but when negativity becomes your default reaction, you have a problem.” Henry cites the “wake-up moment” of Anna Holmes, founding editor of Jezebel, who once tweeted:


Henry goes on to list all the bad things snarkiness and cynicism can do, including:

On Sunday, it mostly just made me sad.

As I watched my classmates belt out a song, recite their own poetry, or dance gracefully to music that brought tears even to my eyes, I realized that I’m the one missing out. 

Learning to become a coach has begun to crack me open. A year ago, I wouldn’t have had those tears in my eyes and I probably wouldn’t have realized what I’d missed. I would have just been relieved when it was over, and my unexamined tension relieved.

This time, as I sat through our graduation ceremony – a candle-lit, spiritual music-filled affair – I felt both grateful and a bit disappointed. Yes, I had completed the program and learned valuable skills as a coach and am now certified and eager to help others. That’s what I came here for. But by holding part of myself back, by maintaining some of my critical distance, I had in some ways kept myself from fully participating in the experience. As I looked around the room, I saw 34 amazing people who I’d come to know some really meaningful things about, but whom I hadn’t really come to know.

Maybe we never fully know other people, but I’m increasingly realizing that the more we open ourselves up to them, the more they open to us, and the more we share the world together. And that makes it a much less lonely – and far more fun – place to be.

I’m not going to be really hard on myself about this: we all protect ourselves in various ways, and I’ve always been on the shy side. Dramatic performance about my innermost feelings was not going to come easily for me. That’s okay.

And I’m slowly getting better. All weekend I was dreading that time at the end of the final class when everyone has to hug and kiss goodbye, worried no one would really care to say goodbye to me or that it would all feel fake and I would want to run and hide in the bathroom. Instead, I just took a breath and slowed down. I decided I would just be real. No one was watching me or expecting me to perform. So I could decide, who did I want to say goodbye to, and what did I want to say? I found that when I let myself actually face those feelings, I had a lot to say, to a lot of people: about how much I appreciated what they’d brought to the class, to me, and to the whole 9-month training experience. And it turned out, I genuinely felt, and wanted to express, that each one really brought a lot. And that I truly appreciated it all.

When I could let go of my shyness and fear and the snarky shell I wear over it, I could genuinely share what I was feeling. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to connect with everyone I wanted to. But I did manage to hug a whole lot of them. And that felt great.