Saturday, 24 May 2014

Cynicism, it aint what it used to be

I came across the following bit of wisdom by Robert Fulghum a little while back. I remember it made me smile broadly at the time. There is just something so beautifully hopeful in it,something that is so needed in these ever increasingly cynical times.

"Americans, it is observed, prefer definite answers. Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. Yes or no. No grays, please.

In Indonesia, there is a word in common use that nicely wires around the need for black and white. Belum is the word and it means ‘not quite yet.’ A lovely word implying continuing possibility. “Do you speak English?”

“Belum.” Not quite yet. “Do you have any children?” “Belum.” Do you know the meaning of life?” “Belum.”

It is considered both impolite and cynical to say, “No!” outright. This leads to some funny moments. “Is the house on fire?” “Belum.” Not quite yet.

It’s an attitude kin to that old vaudeville joke: “Do you play the violin?” “I don’t know, I never tried.”

Perhaps. Maybe. Possibly. Not yes or no, but squarely within the realm of what might be. Soft edges are welcome in this great bus ride of human adventure.

Is this the best of all possible worlds? Belum.

Is the world coming to an end? Belum.

Will we live happily ever after? Belum.

Have we learned to live without weapons of mass destruction? Belum.

In some ways, we don’t know. We’ve never tried. Is it hopeless to think that we might someday try? Belum. Not quite yet."

...I just love it...

Then a few days ago Phil posted the following little gem on the chapel’s facebook wall…

"Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. 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 always say "no". 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"."

These words were spoken by Stephen Colbert on his American satirical news show “The Colbert Report”

...It got me thinking about cynicism...

I noticed a little cynicism last weekend during the chapels annual Christian Aid Collection. Although despite our mutterings we got on with it and as always had a good time in doing so. The money we collected will not change the world, but it will do something. It will do something for we who participated in the collection; it will do something for the folk whose houses we collected from and engaged with and it will do something for those folk in parts of the world who do not have the privilege of living in Cheshire and go door to door in aid of a worthy cause.

Will our small acts change the world? Belum!

I’ve also heard and engaged in all kinds of other cynicism this last week. It has of course been local and European election time. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the comment over the last few days, “Oh they are all the same, so what is the point.”

Have we lost faith in the political process? Belum!

It seems that very few of us believe in progress any more, that we can make our world a better place. In fact I wonder at times if we really believe in anything at all. Sometimes in my despair I wonder where is the hope? Where is the energy? Where is the love for life? I often ask myself, am I living in the most cynical time in human history? Maybe, maybe not. Belum!

And then I heard the line of the week, the cynicism of all cynicism, a friend uttered “You know cynicism aint what it used to be” This reduced me to almost side splitting laughter. I've been chuckling along to it ever since...

So what exactly is cynicism?

Well it seems my friend was right, “cynicism ain’t what it used to be.” Originally a “cynic” was a member of a sect of ancient Greek philosophers who believed that “virtue” was the only good and that self-control was the only means of achieving it.

The cynics rejected what they saw as the falseness of the time. They were known as the “Stray dog philosophers” They rejected the luxury of home living and personal hygiene and they believed that the best way to get their message across to the general public was to verbally abuse them and expel bodily fluids on them as they went about their daily business.

The best known of the “Cynics” was Diogenes. A man who wandered through the streets in the mid-day sun squinting and holding a lantern to find his way, claiming he was “looking for an honest man” He lived in a hollowed out half barrel which he wheeled through the streets. This was his only possession except for a wooden bowl which he destroyed in protest at the fakeness of society after seeing a boy slave drinking water with his cupped hands.

The “cynics” became celebrities of a sort in Ancient Greece, even Alexander the Great was fascinated by Diogenes. Several stories are told of their encounters. It is said that one day Diogenes was philosophising to great crowds and Alexander demanded a private audience with him. Diogenes was not very impressed and ignored his request. Eventually Alexander found him sunbathing. Alexander asked him what he could do for him and Diogenese simply asked him to move a little to right as he was blocking the sun. Another version of story claims that when Alexander found Diogenes he was sifting through bones in a graveyard. Alexander asked what he was doing to which Diogenes replied “I am looking for the bones of your father, but cannot differentiate them from the bones of slaves.

Alexander was greatly humbled by Diogenes and said “if he wasn’t Alexander, he’d want to be Diogenes.”

Those “cynics” had a way of bringing the greatest down to the truly humble level, they were an antidote to the hubris of the day. Yes they had their plus points but there were negatives too, it certainly was not a pathway to friendship and community building. It seemed to me to be the ultimate in isolation and individualism.

“Stoicism” grew from the “Cynics” and no doubt modern day cynics would see this as an inevitable watering down of the original “virtues”. “Stoicism” was a kind of realistic cynicism. It didn’t require an individual to denounce all worldly goods. In fact you could be a wealthy and powerful “stoic”, even the Emperor of Rome. While it too saw little point to it all, that everything leads to nothing in the end, that all the trappings of life are just fake ornamentation. It also suggested that our task is to accept that this is reality, you’ve just got to grin and bear it. That we shouldn’t let it get us down and that we should try to be reasonable about it all. Instead of hurling abuse and muck at life, like a “cynic”, a stoic just needed to set a bit of time aside each day to think about how awful everything is so as to prepare themselves for when all is lost, as it inevitably will be, so that it won’t be missed so much.

You can see the influence of the “cynics” and the “stoics” throughout the ages, especially in the 20th century existentialists. Now while they didn’t live in barrels and hurl muck at people, they found their own way to pour scorn on the world, they entered the world of academia, smoked cigarettes and drank coffee. Central to existentialism is the belief that life has no inherent meaning, no worth, no real value and that the only real meaning that life has is in that which we give it ourselves through the sheer force of our own will; that life is marked by constant anxiety about death and that we have been thrown into an absurd universe; that life is essentially meaningless and that we ought to face up to the hard reality that being reasonable about it all never really works in the end. They made the “stoics” look like “Pollyanna’s” by comparison.

I see much of their legacy in the modern day apathy and cynicism. Something I from time to time witness within myself and in others too. It certainly is a symptom of the baby boom generation and we who have followed; it is a symptom of Generation X and the “No Future’s” amongst us. If you spend a little time on social media you will hear these voices everywhere.

So are we living in the most cynical time in human history? Belum!

Thank God the cynical voices are not all that you can hear; thank God you can hear different voices and witness other forces at work too.

Not all who have followed the example of “cynic” have remained there. Not all have gone down the existentialist’s route. You see nothing in history is inevitable. I do not personally see the inevitability of progress nor do I also see that everything is going to ruin and there really is no point other than to simply grin and bear it.

You can see aspects of the “cynics” way in the life and teachings of Jesus. He chose to be homeless and encouraged his followers to do the same. - You can see these qualities in other religious greats too such as Gandhi and the Buddha - He criticised and even mocked his opponents, calling them fakers, hypocrites and religious posers.

And yet there is so much more in his teachings other than rejection and ridicule of man-made authority. Yes he broke and mocked the rules but he also taught those who followed him to play by them too. To be “Wise as serpents and gentle as doves” or in response to Rome’s occupation of Jerusalem to give to Caeser what belongs to Caeser and to God what belongs to God. He taught that the people should always follow the spirit of the law and not stick blindly to the word. That the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.

Nor did he merely mock and ridicule. He loved and he blessed and accepted all, his key message was not about destruction it was about building the blessed, the beloved, community right here right now. Not just the kingdom that will come but the kingdom now in our time and space. He was about building hope in the present moment and that this hope was to grow within each individual right here right now.

It seems that Jesus was a “cynic” with hope. A hope he saw present within each of us, that like the mustard seed could grow and grow. I believe that he was right, because despite the suffering present in life, hope can still emerge. It is our task, I believe, to bring it to life.

Now there are those who will say yes but Jesus was wrong, he said that the Kingdom would soon be here and it obviously isn’t. My answer to that is simply “Belum”, Not quite yet. Does that mean we should give up on all hope, “Belum”, not quite yet.

Who knows what the future holds, nothing is inevitable, “Belum”, not quite yet.

...It seems those Indonesians may well be on to something...

I see others giving it a real go too. Others who do not merely cynically dissect life, pour scorn and cowardly opt out crying there is no hope, they don’t just say you’ve just got to grin and bear it all. They do what they can.

One thing that has touched me in recent weeks is something I’ve observed on social media called “100 Happy Days”. This is a project that encourages people to seek out positivity in life and to publish a picture on social media displaying this each day. My sister Natalie, one of the least cynical people you could meet has committed to it and it’s been a joy watching hers and others photos. The project claims that if people stick to the commitment they will “Start noticing what makes them happy every day; be in a better mood every day; start receiving more compliments from other people; realize how lucky they are to have the life they have; become more optimistic; fall in love during the challenge.”

Now I can already hear the cynics crying nonsense, it’s fantasy, it’s make believe. Well my answer to them is if it’s nonsense have the courage to give it an honest go with an open heart and mind and see what happens.

Social media also brought something else into my consciousness once again this week. Some beautiful wisdom from Alice Herz-Sommer who when she died earlier this year at 110 was the oldest survivor of the Holocaust. In 2013 a documentary was made about her life titled “The Lady in number 6”, it won the “Oscar” for best short documentary. Her story is both remarkable and uplifting. No matter what happened to her throughout her long life, she never became a cynic. What was her secret? Well here it is in her own words.

“I look at the good. When you are relaxed, your body is always relaxed. When you are pessimistic, your body behaves in an unnatural way. It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive.”

She also believed in the power of music: "Music saved my life and music saves me still... I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion."

Nothing new in this message perhaps, just another simple example of hope triumphing over cynicism; another example of the love of life triumphing over fear.

I try to hold a realistic view of life. I know about the suffering and the shadows, but I choose not to merely focus and concentrate on the suffering present and all around. I also choose not to throw muck and scorn on all those others who contribute to life. The days of cynically dissecting life I hope are behind me. I prefer instead to get my hands dirty in different ways and do what I can, even if that’s just to offer a smile to the next person I pass in the street.

I believe that the best preparation for death is to live our lives in such a way that they will prove worth dying for by the love we live behind (to paraphrase Forrest Church)

I prefer to live with courage rather than the cowardice of cynicism, I prefer to build hope from that little seed within me rather than pull down all that others have tried to do.

What do you prefer?

I will end this little chip of a blog with a little prayer poem titled “Origami Emotion” by Elizabeth Barrette

“Origami Emotion”

Hope is

Folding paper cranes

Even when your hands get cramped

And your eyes tired,

Working past blisters and paper cuts,

Simply because something in you

Insists on

Opening its wings.

by Elizabeth Barrette

Will we live happily ever after? Belum…Belum…Belum…

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