Wednesday, February 10, 2010


I've been thinking for the last couple of weeks that cynicism is probably the signature sin of my generation. As I've turned that thought over and over, it occurs to me that I may only think this because cynicism is the signature sin of my heart. But I suspect I'm not alone. Cynicism is that diseased attitude of the heart which stops me from being serious about anything, creating distance between me and the world - perhaps for my own defence, perhaps out of a sense of arrogant detachment, perhaps a little of both. Let me run through some of the symptoms, and a course of treatment that I've been trialling on myself.

1. Cynicism sneers at whatever appears genuinely noble or heroic. It belittles what is great and dismisses what is beautiful. This may present itself as a sarcastic remark, a flippant joke, a quick change of conversation, or just a sardonic smile. This may start as an occasional reaction, or perhaps something to fit in to the mood of the conversation, but if continued there is a risk that we lose the ability to even perceive or appreciate the good.

2. Cynicism shrugs in a resigned, or even dismissive, way at whatever seems evil, or just terrible. Disaster zone reports are met with a yawn, holocaust movies provoke off-colour jokes. Victims of crime 'probably had it coming'. This may start as a coping mechanism, but if pursued has a numbing effect on the heart which prevents us from seeing evil as evil, and kills off the ability to empathise with another's pain.

3. Cynicism believes that anything that looks good is too good to be true. There's no such thing as a free lunch. They must want something from me in return. What am I missing here? Pretty soon, no gift can be appreciated as anything more than a transaction which I must repay to keep face.

4. Cynicism doesn't believe in change. I can't change, you can't change. We'll just have to live with ourselves and the world as it is.

5. Cynicism won't argue. If what you say sounds smart, you're a smart-alec. If it sounds dumb, I'm smarter than you, so why should I listen? Sarcasm rather than truth-seeking characterises the cynic's conversation.

6. Cynicism can't dream. The imaginative faculties have been stifled. If I can't see it with my own eyes, I won't believe it. Even then, I might not.

7. Cynicism doesn't pray. Whether because of fatalism or atheism, the cynic is unable to envisage a world in which any higher power could change circumstances. If the cynic does pray, accidentally, in a moment of weakness, they are quickly able to explain away any apparent answer.

1. Cut yourself off from sources of scorn. For me, that's meant stopping watching various TV programmes, especially current affairs quiz shows. No more Mock the Week, possibly no more Have I Got News For You. It is impossible to sit in the seat of scoffers and not become a scoffer.

2. Re-stock the imagination with beautiful images. I've been re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia, and reminding myself of what a child-like enthusiasm for the world looks like. This morning, at the end of The Last Battle, I cried with joy as Aslan led his people out of the Shadowlands, and higher up and further in to the Real World. Of course, it helps that this is true - by which I mean Christian - imagery, but there is truth all over the place, not just in the Christian imagination.

3. Pray anyway. Enjoy doing it, even if you can't quite believe right now that it is achieving anything. Who said achieving stuff was so important anyway?

4. Cry in films. This has always been an easy one for me. Feel it. Don't protect yourself. I recommend Up as a recent film which caused me to cry like a girl (no offence, girls).

5. Spend some time day-dreaming. Wonder about what the future might hold. Don't spend all day on it, but take some time. And throw in some outrageous dreams. Why not? Anything could happen.

I wrote something similar before. You can find it here.


  1. I've thought this for a while (though not so well articulated). Not realised that it could be the signature of our generation, but certainly feel & fear it in myself. It does start as a coping mechanism, but is the opposite of faith and hope, so stifles love. I don't know why it's so much more a British problem than elsewhere. I do know why it's even more a Norn Irish problem than elsewhere - coping mechanism, as you said. We were taught post-WW2 that anything is possible, and that personal comfort and pleasure is everything. That means the avoidance of feeling pain is paramount. Cue cynicism. Kill hope, and you can't be disappointed. Kill trust, and you can't be let down. But it leads to utter lovelessness.

  2. Hmm... so cynicism is the opposite of faith, hope and love? And it sneaks up on us so well - it's just 'having a sense of humour'!

  3. How about also turning the cynicism back on the cynic? When presented with cynical sneers, can't we ask what the cause of the cynicism is and whether it is justified, e.g?

    One I dislike is "oh it's just the government trying to tax us some more - that's all the MPs want, more taxes". WHAT?! Are there any MPs out there who thought: I know what I'm keen to do now that I'm elected - find some ever more stealthy ways to tax people...

    It might be that we do have a right to have some helpful suspicion, but don't let that cynicism go unchallenged I say! Perhaps even be cynical about it?


  4. i like this post.

    i like how the resurrection blows a whole through the bottom of our cynicism. there is hope, and it's outrageous.

  5. Thanks Phil - in so few words, that was marvellous and encouraging, in that backbone-giving sort of way God 'encourages' us. Straight to the heart of it!

  6. Of course, a cycnical sense of humour can be very useful indeed - if we turn it on ourselves and our pride, rather than on others and our situation. We need to take ourselves less seriously, and God more seriously - so in that way, a little cynicism about our own plans and abilities can help us trust God in Christ, hope in his redemption, and free us up from self-obsession to love others. Perhaps cynicism is not intrinsically the problem - it depends on the object of our cynicism. As with faith: faith is not essentially good or saving; it depends on its object.

  7. Thanks, this was really helpful.

  8. Resurrection is the key, definitely. Eucatastrophe! Unbelievably good news.

    I should say, I'd differentiate between cynicism and sarcastic humour, which can clearly be deployed in a godly way (Elijah on Carmel, Isaiah's comments on idolatry...) I guess I would say that in our culture, where cynicism is so prevalent, we should be careful about how we use this. Sarcasm about bad things easily becomes cynicism about everything: cf. the dwarfs at the end of the Last Battle!