Cynicism and Despair
Lately, I have been writing a lot about despair. I know that the most immediate experiences make the best writing, and a mentor of mine some years ago said I should give up fiction writing and just write what I know. So, as I struggle with despair, trying to live it bravely rather than cast it out, it seems foolish to write about other topics. So, let us begin one more article on the subject.
My internship supervisor was a great person. This story will not make her seem that great because you will read it outside the context of the whole year-long relationship. She was a caring, compassionate human being in a field in which those compassionate humans tend to burn out, drop out, fall by the wayside, leaving only the worst of us standing.
One day, we were arguing over whether it was all right to diagnose someone for the purposes of being paid by an insurance company. I made the case that this is never OK. I don’t like to diagnose anyone with anything under any circumstances. The very act of doing so communicates many things I don’t think are desirable. There is a power exchange here on several levels: between me and the insurance company, between me and client, between the client and society and the establishment.
She saw it was not going to be productive to argue with me and, in a moment of anger, said, “Yes, but you are an idealist.”
She meant that to hurt. I was supposed to see it and back down from it, accept a more rational, realistic worldview in which we all have to lie sometimes to get by. I know she meant it to hurt because, being a good, nice person, she immediately tried to walk it by. “And that’s OK,” she said, a moment later.
She meant it to be a put-down, at least a derogatory comment.
Over the years since then, a number of snappy comebacks have occurred to me as I remember this conversation. For example, “So what does that make you? A cynic?” Or, “But you are a nun. How can a nun not be an idealist?” I am glad none of these occurred to me then first because I would have said them, and couldn’t have then taken them back (the second is particularly ignorant). And second, because I would have missed the chance then to accept the comment, not as a put-down, but as a well-meant insight.
I am an idealist. While I’m not exactly proud of it, I accept this about myself. It is a piece of a puzzle I need to see. I can be bull-headed about my ideals, stand for them beyond all reason, and make sacrifices on their behalf. I don’t presently work in therapy exactly because of the problem of getting paid. I won’t compromise my principles on this one and I won’t work for anyone who does.
All around, I see people who have become cynical. Politicians are especially cynical, manipulating people for their own ends. The Koch brothers cynically pump money into advertising and politics so they can keep making money in their poisonous industries, and we will cheer their right to do so with our ragged breath.
And I see cynicism in the people around me. Nothing will ever change, we cannot make a difference. People are just like that. There is no point in trying.
It has been said that if you scratch a cynic, underneath you will find a disappointed idealist. I think there must be some truth to this. We all care about something, we all have principles. It is no coincidence that most idealists are young: they haven’t been beaten down yet by reality. Cynics are always offering me a place at their table.
I was first accused of cynicism at the age of 12. I think, though, I might be aging backwards in some ways, like Benjamin Button (but nowhere near as handsomely as Brad Pitt). Because the older I get, the less I can be a cynic. The more my ideals seem like things to hold onto, the more I defend them. I think I had my ideals trampled on quite early and have worked through disappointment back to idealism.
I would go further and say the cynic is not only a disappointed idealist but also a traumatized one. Now trauma means different things to and for different people. The same experiences don’t produce the same feelings, the feelings in you that cause trauma might not be traumatic in me. We are warped and distorted or resilient along different lines.
The cynic has decided to survive and even be happy, exuding gallows humor. She or he hasn’t surrendered their ideals—quite the opposite. But to some degree they have stopped fighting for them, because they can no longer bear the pain of disappointment.
And maybe they are the smart ones. Because the more one attends to it, the more the disappointment mounts. The world really is falling apart around us. People are dying and suffering, the oceans are in ruin, climate change is real (Venice is already submerged one third of the year). Choosing to turn away from all of this might be the best thing to do. Things are not as they should be and never will be. Perhaps the best strategy is to adjust to the new reality, accept it as it is.
But the idealist sees things are not right and doesn’t, cannot, accept it. It is the non-acceptance that leads to suffering. Ask any DBT coach. Eventually, we see so much out of place that we have to despair. And in despair lies the possibility, the probability, of the trauma that makes cynics. One can either wake up each day and choke down their tears, or decide that there is no point fighting any more.
For now, I think the tears are the braver choice. Despair has a purpose, and I can’t let go of the part of my self that cares deeply, that wants change. It is not easy having a soul that only plays in a minor key but the world is really, as a matter of fact, a sad place. There is beauty in sadness, but there must also be action.
Once more, I invite you to despair with me. Because otherwise good action is unlikely.
What you can do:
Engage, if you have the stomach for it, with your disappointment that things are not as you think they should be. Find some ground to stand on, even if it is shaky ground (thanks, Brent Dean Robbins, for that one) and stand there. Take a position. Don’t believe people who say it can’t be done or that the takers will just ruin everything anyway.
-- Jason Dias