Big ideas about faith and culture, contained in twenty-six little letters.

The case for optimism in an age of cynicism

The case for optimism in an age of cynicism

“The age of anxiety has given way to the age of cynicism,” 30-year-old composer Mohammed Fairouz wrote. “Among my generation, cynicism is no longer a bad word: it’s celebrated, and is often mistaken for intelligence.”

Cynicism is certainly a hallmark of the era we’re in – a product of the times. We’ve seen backstabbing and infighting across the Australian political scene, and turmoil in “hallowed” institutions like the church. Celebrities are consistently being toppled from their pedestals, and media outlets are becoming less trusted. We’re in an age when Trump is on top, and many of us feel like nothing is going right. It’s so pervasive that it seems like cynicism is a way of life.

New Year’s is one of those rare times where optimism thrives, and in an age of cynicism, I’m going to argue there’s space for optimistic skeptics like me year-round. Looking around the world with cynicism is an unhealthy way of showing our high standards. In fact, it can rob us more than it helps.

It allows you to judge a situation without feeling the need to help

Cynicism is easy. It acts as an armour against disappointment, but it removes the responsibility to working to make change. (That includes change in yourself or in the world at large.)

We get to feel superior for no other reason than that we’re “right”.

It masquerades as intelligence

In an age of fake news, having a healthy dose of suspicion can stand you in good stead. But focusing on the negatives is no more intelligent than focusing only on the positives – and much less productive.

It makes optimism into a caricature

Ah, the eternal optimist – those who love empty motivational quotes that promise that “everything happens for a reason” and “if you’re not happy, it’s not the end”. We assume that poverty can be solved within a year, and that each relationship we embark on will continue seamlessly forever.

At least, that’s the stereotype. Naturally, cynics figure that we can’t identify with that kind of naivete. It’s fashionable to think that optimists are just cynics who lack critical thinking.  

It devalues what I do have

Even when you do have good things, cynicism can also rob you of the enjoyment of it. It’s a hungry emotion, focused on the half empty glass rather than the wine that remains. As Oscar Wilde wrote, a cynic “knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” What bird you have in your hand is not worth the bird you think you see in the bush.

Are high standards bad? Not at all. But when they don’t translate to action, they can be toxic. Because I never act or put myself out into risky territory, I never get the option of improving my lot.

In the end, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. I expect nothing will get better. I do nothing. Nothing gets better. It robs me of the chance of positive change.

A new year starts

As a new year begins, many of us will swing toward optimism or cynicism about what 2019 will bring.

I look back on 2018 in a mixed way. This past year has brought me great sadness, trauma caused intentionally by loved ones, and difficult moral situations.

I can dwell on how these make me feel, and I am not pretending they never happened. But equally, I can’t pretend that 2018 didn’t bring lots of good. I achieved many dreams this year, personally and professionally, and just as I shouldn’t ignore what bad happened, my inclination is more to whitewash the good.

Much like growth mindsets, optimism allows the chance for things to change. The optimist is the one on the playing field; the cynic is the spectator in the comfy seats. Only one has the chance of winning the game.

At Christmas, we sing with John Lennon, “Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.” This side of heaven, we know this won’t truly happen. But it doesn’t absolve me of the responsibility to do what’s in my power to do.

Cynicism is easy, but are we brave enough to pursue hope?