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Dealing With Your Cynical Self

Posted Mar 27 2009 9:35am

Continuing on in our exploration of cynicism, today’s post is about how to understand and deal with it in yourself, so that it doesn’t stop you from making positive change, or playing your part in changing your world for the better.

A few days ago, I found an interesting article on the internets.  It’s titled  ’How You Can Defeat Cynicism And Become A Positive Thinker’.    The title of the article offers two assumptions.   First, that you want to ‘defeat’ cynicism. The use of the word defeat implies a battle  (where cynicism is winning, yeegads!)  I suppose that it was written by someone struggling with cynicism and finding it hard to deal with it.  My interest is different.  I’m not wanting to fight.  I’m wanting to facilitate, empower and upgrade my change abilities and yours.  Second, it assumes that becoming a positive thinker is somehow virtuous.  Hmm.

What I’m about to say to you about positive thinking, I say with no hint of irony.  

Fact is,  I’m not a positive thinker.  In fact, I think being negative sometimes can actually be a positive thing. When you’re in danger, a lah-dee-dah mindset is not going to be helpful.  Getting yourself out of danger means recognizing that you’re in it.  Having a negative reaction to something may be exactly what it takes to get you to move out of the way of it.

Nor am I a negative thinker.  Actually, when I’m not writing, I’m not much of a thinker at all.  But now that I’m thinking about positive and negative thinking, I have a thought or two to share with you.  Because I think that having positive thoughts about negative experiences can be beneficial.  Asking yourself, ‘What’s good about it?’ or ‘Where might this be useful?’ may take away a degree of difficulty, provide perspective and put you in position to do more creative thinking than if you simply have a bad reaction.   

The problem, when it comes to positive change, is that when a negative mindset becomes too familiar it may give rise to a generalized cynicism.  And generalized cynicism, whether in you or outside of you, often stands in the way of change for the better.  

Some amount of cynicism has value in our lives.  It can protect us from making the same mistake again and again.  It can protect us from following the crowd of lemmings heading over the cliff.  So it is not an inherently bad trait to have a bit of cynicism in your life, nor is it necessarily evidence of negative thinking in general.

The key to the proper use of cynicism is to contextualize it.  Instead of letting it control you and blind you and bind you to change, identify the times and places where distrusting the motives of others can serve you well. A few examples come to mind:

1) Online and offline, children ought to be a at least a little cynical of offers made by strangers.

2) Get rich quick schemes almost always turn out badly.  Cynicism is, in my humble opinion, the proper response to all such claims.

3) Anytime someone claims to KNOW more about you and your life’s purpose than you know about yourself (I’m thinking of cult leaders and mind readers) that ought to raise the hackles on the back of your neck.  I mean, come on.  How could they possibly?  We each have our hands full with understanding ourselves, don’t you think?

So it’s the generalized cynicism that causes health problems and social isolation.  The cynic (a person who is often or always cynical) looks down on just about everyone around them, and I think that’s a sorry state for anyone unless the desired state is to be alone.   Of course any attitude that is overgeneralized can cause problems. That includes positive thinking and seeing only the good in people.  Human beings are a mixed bag, with lofty ideals, bright ideas and base impulses.  Context is key. Identify the where and when for a behavior like cynicism,  and use it there and then, and everywhere else, try something else.  Have a choice in behaviors and attitudes and a bit of flexibility, you can adapt to circumstances based on new information. Have only one choice or attitude, that kind of inflexibility can only lead to you backing yourself into a corner.

My favorite way of challenging a cynical view is to ask a simple logical question:  ”Is that true?”  followed by, “How do you know?”  

But the best way to deal with generalized cynicism, I think, is to replace it with meaning. The other day, I was discussing this idea with my 88 year old father.  I suggested that he read about Viktor Frankl, who wrote the amazing book,  Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived a Nazi concentration camp and wrote about his struggle to find meaning there. Frankl clearly saw that it was those who had nothing to live for who died quickest in the concentration camp.

He realized that at the heart of life is a basic truth.  He described his discovery of this basic truth while being marched through the concentration camp by guards using whips and rifle butts to keep the exhausted and emaciated prisoners moving.   He found this basic truth in the mere thought of his beloved wife.  In his words:

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”  

Frankl identified clearly the domain in which cynicism can be replaced with meaning:  

“Everything can be taken from a man but …the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

 I’d love some comments and feedback!  I hope you have a great weekend filled with meaning instead of cynicism.  Spring has sprung, and I’m going to find meaning in the simple things, like walking, stopping to smell the flowers, feeling the breeze against my skin, dreaming big ambitious dreams, and offering help, support and solace to friends and strangers whenever an opportunity presents itself. 

be well, Rick

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