“How is it,” asks my interlocutor, “that you immerse yourself in all of this dark history, and yet you don’t seem cynical?”
Well, that’s a fair question. I’m tempted to simply throw down another Edward Abbey quote and let it go at that:
“Don’t let yourself become cynical. Cynicism is a cheap emotion, a craven substitute for thought and action. Cynicism corrodes the will, dulls the conscience, blunts your sense of right and wrong… Stay alert to fine distinctions: become a pessimist like me.”
But, since I’m in the business of expounding upon things, allow me to expound…
Cynicism is both a cause and a symptom of bitterness, and a bitter life is no kind of life for me. I’ve seen bitterness eat people alive from the inside out. It ain’t pretty for anyone — including those close to a person drowning in their own toxic stew.
A cynic can be described as one who sees “hypocrisy and deceitfulness, primitive selfishness and unbounded egoism, and gross materialism and disguised ruthlessness are the hidden characteristics of all human behavior.”
As a lifelong student of frontier history, I can attest that this is a pretty good description of the way the whole thing rolls. Our Founding Fathers were land speculators on a grand scale, knowingly at the expense of First Nations peoples, who were to be bribed out of their lands, assimilated or pushed aside by force when necessary. Resource exploitation has always been the name of the game. And that goes for First Nations peoples, too. The Comanche made Northern Mexico howl for a couple of centuries, and the Apache considered Mexican settlers as practically their employees — raising livestock for them to raid.
Greed and duplicity, cruelty and barbarism, held sway on all sides — but so did genuine nobility and heroism, as clashes among mere handfuls of men decided the fates of empires.
And those greedy, patriarchal, slavery-defending Founders yet managed to cobble together a structure for republican government that has given room for the expansion of human liberty. Sort of by accident, the Founders left the door open far enough for Martin Luther King, Jr. to stick his foot in it, with an appeal that can have but one answer:
“All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’”
Yes, we’re constantly in danger of adopting one new set of chains or another, but the beacon of individual liberty continues to beckon.
My outlook is that it is remarkable that we humanfolk do as well as we do. I figure acts of generosity, nobility and courage should be saluted, even if we know that there are always mixed motives. And especially when they come from someone who is fundamentally a sonofabitch. There are plenty of historical examples, but a mythic tale provides an archetypal one: Jaime Lannister from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones).
Here we have a ridiculously handsome and privileged prince of a great house, an oathbreaker and a Kingslayer who pushes a nine-year-old kid out of a tower window because the kid saw Jaime rogering his own twin sister. Bad dude, right? REALLY bad dude. Yet, he saves a woman from a gang of rapists, at the cost of his sword hand. And maybe the act that originally earned him opprobrium as a Kingslayer was actually a heroic act? Hmmmm…
It’s not redemption, exactly — just a very mixed bag of human messiness.
It is my belief that cynicism is often the flip side of idealism. If you think the human condition ought to be better than it is, it’s easy to slide into bitter disappointment. A great deal of the angst that informs what passes for our political-cultural discourse these days has its roots that gap between expectation and reality. If you give cynicism its head, it becomes despair.
I reject despair. As a rather cheerful pessimist, I insist that, yes, it is remarkable that we do as well as we do.
My friend Cris Converse once said to me that one of the things she likes and admires about me is that I embrace and use my own darkness. That’s one of the most astute — and nicest — things anybody’s ever said to me.
I think doing so is critical, and I work hard at it. My friends, I am a sinner. While I’m not especially subject to greed or envy, the other five “deadly sins” are my constant companions: lust; gluttony; sloth; wrath; and pride. I don’t try to eliminate them and I sure as hell don’t pretend that they’re not there. I’ve tried to make friends with them and channel them into the most productive — or least destructive — manifestations I am capable of. And that practice helps me avoid cynicism when I look outward.
I figure most folks are struggling to do the same. Makes it easier to cut people slack.
When I look out across the landscape of the Big Bad World, I see a lot that I don’t like. Principles, liberties and lifeways that I value more than life its ownself are under attack from all sides. I push back where, when and how I can. It’s not enough, and the pessimist in me doubts that I and my comrades will prevail. But I will never succumb to cynicism and despair, because the outcome is beyond my control, but the battle is not. And the battle itself is worthy.
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