The danger of cynicism

May 9, 2007 | 7 comments

In going through all these boxes that have been in storage for two years, I’m often reminded of how different I am today than I was then. Whenever I think about my old ways there’s one thing that really stands out to me now: cynicism. I used to be very cynical. And I believe now it’s one of the most dangerous traits to indulge.

I don’t know what the official definition of cynicism is, but I think of it as pessimism plus pride. Not only do you close yourself to the possibility of wonder, selfless goodness, and hope, but you think you’re doing so because you’re intelligent and world-wise. That was my brand of cynicism, at least.

I think that some people use it as a coping mechanism for dealing with the pain, suffering and injustice they see in the world all around them. That was probably at least partially the case with me. But it’s a state of mind that will slowly rot the soul.

Cynics don’t like to hear about (and often don’t even believe in) happy endings. And when you’re in that state of mind there’s almost no way God could get through to you, since his message (and mere existence) contains the ultimate happy ending. In fact, I don’t think it would even be possible to be a believing Christian and a cynic. The two are mutually exclusive. In order for one to enter, the other has to go.

I think this topic is interesting also in light of the discussion going on in response to my last post about spiritual attacks. Jessica, the daughter of missionaries, notes that spiritual warfare takes different forms in different places depending on the culture of the people. In the small subarcitic village where her family lived, there were overt demonic attacks through witch doctors. Here in the United States and in Europe demons use different methods — and I think that cynicism is one of their more effective tools.


  1. Fr. D

    “Here in the United States and in Europe demons use different methods” – relativism.

  2. Literacy-chic

    I think there may be different definitions of cynicism–this one seems very extreme! But then, I got involved in a discussion with the leaders of a Convalidation workshop over whether “skepticism” was a negative trait. I maintain that to be skeptical about things is a healthy attitude–so long as it doesn’t take away from your acceptance of things that you learn to be true. It does seem to me that one can adopt a cynical attitude at times without succumbing to the evils you mention. Perhaps it is the difference between cynicism as an attitude and cynicism as a world view?

  3. Anonymous

    I read somewhere that cynicism is sentimentality gone bad, which I think is true because sentimental people often don’t have solid ground on which to base their hopes, thus when things go wrong they don’t know how to cope, and believe that real hope, the kind of hope that Christ offers, is fake too.

  4. Adoro te Devote

    I actually “adopted” cynacism to overcome my softer, meeker nature. (I realize this trait doesn’t really show online…I put up a front in real life and online sometimes).

    When I was preparing to enter law enf., I knew I had to overcome what would seem like weakness, so I did everything I could to become “cynical”, seeing it as a good trait.

    Granted, it cost me, it artifically jaded me, and I still can’t seem to shed these last remnants of a trait that I took on…because cynacism is dangerous, and I would suggest it doesn’t always naturally develop, but is “invited”, in a way. As a coping mechanism, as you mentioned, for a variety of things. It is a defense, and the motive for that defense varies from person to person. But yes, pride is involved.

    I remember congratulating myself on my ability to handle some pretty major things…but now, years later…I’ve come to realize that via my cynacism, they were not “handled” but only suppressed.

    What we don’t face head-on haunts us, no matter what we try to tell ourselves or what defense we try to hide behind.

  5. Mark

    2 : a faultfinding captious critic; especially : one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest

    Probably the most dangerous thing about being a cynic is the habit of assuming a motive in the absence of evidence. St. Francis de Sales exhorts the Christian, even in the case of overt wrong actions, to assign the most charitable motive possible to the sinner. St. Teresa of Avila said something to the effect of “No one ever went to hell for beleiving better of a man than was true, but the opposite can not be said.”

  6. lyrl

    Very insightful, Mark. I remember how bad I felt when my mother assumed I was doing something on the up-and-up when I actually has crossed some lines. It sure motivated me to bring my actual performance into line with her expectations. (I understand this type of reaction isn’t the case in all such situations, but I believe assuming good faith works in many more situations than is generally realized.)

    I find Jen’s recent series of posts interesting, in that they seem to be heading in the direction of “everything good comes from God, and everything bad comes from the Devil”. I realize she is not going to that extreme (she’s not saying that when she gets distracted and misses a meal, a demon comes to push her “cranky” button, and an angel comes to push her “hungry” button), but it piqued my curiosity. For a person who believes in supernatural guidance, how are events that are supernaturally influenced distinguished from those that are not? Is the line anything that a person finds meaningful (positive or negative), must have some outside influence? I suppose that would be consistent with the view that it is God who causes things to be meaningful.

  7. S.M. Stirling

    Martin Luther once said that humans in general are like a drunken peasant trying to ride a horse — they get up, fall off, get back on, and fall off again… but on the other side.

    Generalized cynicism — usually a cheap, unearned variety — is as stupid as Pollyanaism. It’s being a chump, only in a slightly different way.

    There’s nobody easier to con than someone who’s convinced everything is a con and everyone is out to con them.

    Just as rampant paranoia makes it impossible to tell who your real enemies are.

    Now, _specific sorts_ of cynicism, grounded in actual reflected-upon experience, is a different kettle of fish.

    Eg., I’m mildly cynical about the law… but I was a lawyer. And I’ve yet to meet an infantryman who’s not cynical about some aspects of their profession.

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