Cynicism: The Downhill Slide to Apathy

Some things come so easy in life. It’s easy to breathe, easy to eat, easy to enjoy a great movie. It’s also so incredibly easy to become cynical.

How often do we exude a cynical, scornful, maybe sardonic attitude toward others, even people we love? The political climate and the current election cycle in particular brings this out of us in a special sort of way. We are so quick to dismiss, quick to disown, quick to slide into a lackadaisical sense of self-asserting cynicism. Well my friends, this only leads to crippling apathy. 

I tried to find a picture that captured apathy. This is the best I could do.

This downward slide toward apathy can begin quite early in life. Remember being a kid? Remember how you watched other kids put down each other, making themselves feel better about themselves? The bullies in school thought they were getting ahead by making other kids feel awful, but in reality they were simply hurting others and creating memories that sometimes never fade away.

For me, I still remember when other kids in my fifth grade class made the connection between the minty muscle rub, Bengay, and its implication for persecuting me. By the cubby boxes where we kept our personal items, Kory-the coolest kid in our class-dubbed me with the title that I would fail to shake for the many long months of that 1997-1998 school year. Ben-gay. There you go. Bullying and taunting leaves marks, scars that last for decades. I am not bothered so much anymore about having been called Bengay in fifth grade any more than you are bothered by the insults you received during your formative years-or even now, but the fact that I remember it reveals how painful it was.

But we continue the same crudeness that marked elementary school playgrounds and junior high locker rooms. We just change the format, moving toward a disdaining, self righteous, and dismissive kind of humor that decimates, crushes the distant “other.”

The educated are especially capable of this kind of easy scorn. Right now, progressives are quickly branded as amoral communists who cannot define right living while conservatives become xenophobic ostriches who can’t foster a bit of sympathy for someone different than them. It’s not too terribly different than 5th grade, is it? I live in San Francisco, so I tend to hear a bit more bashing of conservatives than I did back in the Midwest. There, I had only a slightly more balanced diet of who bashed who. Slightly, mind you.   

Known as one of Jesus’s brothers, James had some serious words about our words. In chapter three of his New Testament letter which many scholars perceive as a written sermon, he says this:   

“All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

Deadly poison? Surely, he overstates. Or maybe not. Have you been on Twitter or Facebook recently? Have you listened in to the world of politics? Our God-given desire to promote meaningful change and respectful community so quickly devolves into cynical denunciation of others around us. Before we are aware, we become numb, apathetic.

Just verses later, James suggests an alternative:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

I literally just breathed a sigh of relief. A good life speaks vital words to communities that desperately needs purpose. A life well-lived imbues a sense of hope by modeling a sense of God-given humility stemming from wisdom. Humble folks have a harder time being cynical: their wisdom, earned by honestly observing their own foibles, reminds them that they have received a lot of grace. And a lot of forgiveness. And this leads to a sense of indebtedness toward others instead of a cutting and self-asserting I-know-better-than-you kind of mentality. 

But where does it all come from? Again [surprise surprise], James helps us as we follow his logic: 

…the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

James was a Jewish Christian, and in the minds of 1st century Jews, heaven was the place where God is [fully. see your local pastor or rabbi for further details]. Wisdom that comes from heaven is wisdom straight from God. And look at how James describes wisdom. It is pure, merciful, submissive, impartial, sincere. It is not apathetic or cynical. And it certainly is not easy. It’s easy to dismiss, to roll our eyes and look down our noses at others who understand things differently than we do. It’s easy to roll downhill toward apathy land where nothing really matters-not even people [even people who we thought we cared about]. 

Christian sisters and brothers, we are called not to what is easy, but to what is hard. Resist cynicism, scorn, and the easy words that come to us that cut others down. Don’t roll down the easy path of subtle hate that leads to apathy. Instead, practice love, forgiveness, peace, submission, mercy, sincerity. 

It may not be easy, but I believe it’s what we are called to. And, if I’m honest, I’ve got my work cut out for me. 

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