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Too many problems, too little hope: why meeting life with a sneer is not the answer

"If you’re looking to grow apathetic with the world, there’s no shortage of inspiration". Photo by Danzor Friday Danzor from Pexels

Knowledge is power. And thanks to the information age we live in, we now have it in plenty. Many of us know a little about a lot. We know that the food we are eating is killing us, we know that Hollywood is a sex predator’s paradise, we know that the gospel industry is teeming with wolves in sheep’s clothing, we know that the environment will not survive our existence, we know that for every technological advancement that’s been made, there’s been an equal and opposite horror story to counter it…I could go on but I think you get the drift.

It can get exhausting. And if you’re looking to grow apathetic with our world, there’s no shortage of inspiration.

What’s more, we live in a time where, for every ‘truth’ that exists, there is an alternative ‘truth’. Special thanks go to our social media platforms where little consideration is given to rigour, research and objectivity when it comes to the dissemination of most of this information. On any given subject, at any given time, everyone’s a pundit, everyone’s an expert, everyone’s an authority. Debates escalate at breakneck speeds and if you are not for us, then you are with them, which makes you a dangerous enemy.

With the information we are exposed to on a daily, all evidence points to the fact we are living in the worst of times. Some have even argued that these are the end of times.

But let’s look at a few facts for a moment:

Around the globe, life expectancy is rising, child and maternal mortality are down and the literacy rate is up. We make more money, are safer in our workplaces and have more freedom to choose the kind of work we want to do.  We are increasingly free to say what we feel, be who we are and love whom we choose. There are fewer wars, more food and more equality. The ozone layer is slowly recovering from man-made damage, the price of generating renewable energy has fallen and Kenya has instituted the world’s toughest moratorium on plastic bag usage.

Lack of perspective

Historical and statistical evidence shows that life used to be shorter, sicker, poorer, more dangerous, less educated and less free than it is now. We are learning so much more about health, happiness, relationships and human consciousness. Human beings continue to accomplish previously unimaginable feats. Yet this is hardly ever the story’s focus. Apparently, the story needs to appeal to our negativity bias. Because that’s where the money is made- at least as far as mainstream media channels are concerned. If it bleeds, it leads. So you’re not constantly seeing negative headlines because the world is getting worse; you’re constantly seeing negative headlines because that’s what you’re more likely to react to.

Enter the cynic

With such a state of affairs, is it any wonder that our culture has elevated cynicism to almost virtue status? “Why should I vote? It’s not going to make a difference anyway”. “Why should I donate money, when there’s just going to be another starving child tomorrow?” “What difference will one plastic straw make? The environment is already doomed”, “Look at those spoilt, uninformed brats, thinking they can change the world with their smartphones and a single march”. That’s the cynic for you. “Wise”, “smart”, “a sophisticated realistic”.

In the fourth century BC, cynicism was a school of thought that was practised by ancient Greek philosophers who rejected conventional ideas about money, power, and shelter. Instead, they advocated for people to live simple lives in agreement with nature. Today, cynics pride themselves on their scepticism. Their ability to be wary of other people’s motives is a sign of discerning intelligence. They assume the worst and are ‘glad’ when it’s not. Cynicism is the grown-up cool.

I want to be viewed as weak, gullible and foolish, said no one ever.

Where the optimist is naive and silly for looking for the good in situations and trying to lend a helping hand, the cynic is cautious and calculating for protecting themselves from potential harm.

For that matter, the cynic tends to be more revered. And if you think in terms of game theory it makes sense: The cynic, if wrong, suffers little humiliation. S/he may even be lauded for alerting society to imminent danger (whether or not it occurred). The optimist, on the other hand, is a fool when wrong and receives little praise for correct predictions. Either way, the cynic gets a better deal.

Except…

When we look for the worst in the world, it tends to respond in kind.

Cynicism is often idealized in today’s world, but in practice, it fails to fulfil its promise of protection in any significant way. Instead, it becomes a self-fulfiling prophecy that galvanizes the very danger it is trying to protect us from.

If my narrative regarding the current state of the world is pessimistic, my brain will find biased evidence to support my belief that the world is a terrible place. And we live in a time where I need not even look for the evidence, provided I have a mobile phone, it will find me.

But as the great historian, Howard Zinn said in this powerful essay

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory

Howard Zinn

Cynicism may guard you against potential disappointment and hurt but it is also extremely disempowering. It closes doors and builds walls. It undermines goodwill and escalates the conflict. It erodes your ability to believe. It implies that nothing is worth fighting for. It prevents you from saying yes. If you wear cynism on your sleeve, you will miss life’s small miracles. As Oscar Wilde put it, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

Bad things happen and human beings are capable of dreadful deeds, we’re not denying that. And certainly refusing to use a plastic straw alone won’t solve our environmental problems. But of what value is it for us to dismiss these problems as unsolvable? And why greet the ones who are trying with disdain? How is that any better?

I don’t know how to fix global warming or racial, tribal, political and religious tensions but I do know this: we cannot grow cold towards one another. We cannot give up on the world. And we cannot give in to cynicism.

And so I have learned that the more difficult life becomes the more important it is to greet it with an open mind.  Things can get very hard: children get sick, relationships end, financial situations change.  But it is exactly when life seems to be dealing one blow after another that I need to believe that things can get better. Otherwise, why keep going?

I have also learned that in every disappointment, there is a chance to learn and change. If we greet these situations with indifference, then we miss great opportunities to grow.

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3 responses to “Too many problems, too little hope: why meeting life with a sneer is not the answer”

  1. […] of some experts or the paragons of virtue that live among us. This, coupled with an unhealthy cynicism for people who are passionate about issues as being naïve, is the toxic mixture that inhibits us from making the changes we need in our own […]

  2. […] get me wrong, modern society is much better when it comes to the net positive, but we have lost some of that courage that past generations […]

  3. […] In today’s society, you’re looked down upon for feeling good. If you’re not depressed, you don’t care. I’m calling BS. You can care about the injustices in the world and improve your life at the same time. […]

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