The trap of cynicism

One day a little while ago, I was having a really rotten day. It had been a while since I had felt that low, and so while I was down there  I felt around and tried to make some notes on how it works. Depression and melancholy used to be a more common motif in my life, but it has become somewhat rare now, and so I had actually forgotten (a little bit) of how it feels.

Interestingly, the most salient aspect I could note about being in that pit … is that it’s rather comfortable.

There’s something important there, and I wanted to spend some time today examining it.


To be clear, there are differing degrees of depression, cynicism, melancholy, hopelessness, etc., and they spring from a variety of causes. Duh. I’m going to use these terms basically interchangeably today, and try to speak of their most common manifestations.

My guess is that most of us begin life with a lot of hope. A hallmark of childhood innocence, I think, is the unfeasibility of our wild and ambitious juvenile dreams. What do you want to be when you grow up? An astronaut! (ok, some people do get to be astronauts … but very few)

Part of such naiveté is due to lack of experience with what’s required in the world to realize such dreams.

The other part is a lack of scar tissue, which we acquire when the world fights back.

Or to be more specific, kids seem to start out with a lack of cynicism. Let’s ask Wikipedia what that means:

“Modern cynicism has been defined as an attitude of distrust toward ethical and social values and a rejection of the need to be socially involved.”

“… cynicism results from excessively high expectations concerning society, institutions and authorities: unfulfilled expectations lead to disappointment, which releases feelings of disillusionment and betrayal. In organizations, cynicism manifests itself as a general or specific attitude, characterized by frustration, hopelessness, disillusionment and distrust in regard to economic organizations, managers and/or other aspects of work.”

So we might say that, once we have been abused by disappointment or loss of innocence, bad circumstances, bad authority, etc. … cynicism is a way that we armor ourselves against further abuse hurting us ever again.

Let’s not forget, either, that the majority of these abuses play out on a very personal, micro level. You fell in love with someone and they broke your heart in cold blood. You entered college with a conservative worldview and were overwhelmed and sucked into a relativistic jungle of postmodern philosophy. Or, maybe it happened much earlier — maybe your parents split up when you were in 4th grade, and your warm cradle of childhood was ripped asunder … and with it, any trust you may have had in the reliability of human relationships, or the safety of childhood.

Yeah, there are a lot of ways that we can be abused. Most people have their fair share of scar tissue by the time they finish college, and that means most people (in our culture) have had their rose-colored glasses pretty well shattered by then. And if they don’t have such cynicism, we tend to view them as naïve and sheltered, and/or just plain goofy and weird. Don’t we? I do, for sure.

Granted, sometimes we have to lose our unfounded optimism and replace it with a realism that still reaches for lofty goals. That’s probably healthy. But most people go further than that, and can move into a kind of subtle, chronic depression — which I know well from earlier years. I will call this despondency.

Despondency is what I was describing at the beginning — a pit of emotion or cognitive paralysis, sometimes imperceptible, which results from a loss of hope or courage.

What makes it comfortable is that there’s no risk when you hope for little.

And there we find the motivator behind cynicism altogether. It’s a risk-aversion response. Having experienced injury in our lives, cynicism is the cognitive equivalent of waiting out the battle by staying in the foxhole. By risking little (with our hopes and trust), we stay out of the line of fire, and the years go by without threatening us much. It’s quite safe and comfortable.

But, everyone knows where this leads. Depression. A life lived in the foxhole is incredibly boring, and after a while you might start to forget what really being alive can feel like. And this is pandemic in our society, which is why books entitled OMG LIVE LIFE MORE FULLY ALIVE are popular every year.

Anyway. Those are some thoughts about cynicism, despondency, and depression. Why it’s comfortable, why it’s common, and how we can identify such a thing. Some other day, I may spend some time talking about how we can venture out of the foxhole in a sensible fashion.

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