But then my dear friend, Rev. Chris, got to talking. And over the course of our conversation, he asked me today whether there was any good or helpful place for cynicism. We talked about it for a bit, and it eventually became clear that cynicism needed to be my topic today.
Cynicism as I understand it is the opposite of my core values. It is apathy taken from a sort of helpless, secular quietist position to an active repudiation of hope.
Don’t get me wrong! Skepticism (I almost typed “nihilism”!) is a perfectly reasonable and often helpful position. Skeptics demand support, and often external, empirical support, for any position they are willing to take. Skeptics consider the facts.
I think of my brother. He identifies as a skeptic. He acknowledges his own transcendent experiences with nature, physical exertion, and parenting. He does not, however, assume or insist that others share those same experiences. He doesn’t assume or insist that others would experience the transcendent in those same experiences. As a skeptic, he allows for a variety of experience.
At the same time, skeptics can allow for hope. “Hope is in action,” my brother says. And his point is that resistance is not futile. Hope exists. For him, it doesn’t exist in some idea of God or the afterlife. For him, it exists in the work of human bodies, human minds. If the moral arc of the universe is to bend toward justice, as Rev. Theodore Parker and then Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, then human beings must do the bending.
Cynicism, on the contrary, says there’s no point in trying to bend anything. There’s no reason to hope for anything, and so why resist? Resistance is indeed futile. The world is doomed. Humanity is without value, and is in fact a scourge on the earth.
Now I get that last part, I must admit. As a species, we are doing intense harm to our habitat. But as Wendell Berry says in the “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,”
“Be joyful.” Laugh. Allow yourself the luxury of hope.
Because it is hope that brings joy. And joy is necessary for sustainable resistance. We cannot resist the slings and arrows of outrageous elections, nor the bear-killing ice melt, nor the tree-murdering rainforest fires…we cannot resist them without some kind of hope. Hope that exists, despite considering all the facts.
Otherwise, we simply wait to die. All of us. Earth will endure, one way or another, and recover live that have been lost. But ours may not be among them, it’s true.
And the cynic says that’s all there is. Rev. Dr. King, on the other hand, admonishes us to carve hope from the stone, the mountain of stone made of despair.
I choose hope. And you? What do you choose?
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –