The Folly of Cynicism

Q: Dear Dr. Hurd: In today’s culture, it is easy to be cynical. How can one not succumb to cynicism while simultaneously not being naive to the negativity or ulterior motives of people?

A: The term “cynicism” implies a departure from objective reality. The solution implied by this would be sticking to reality. Stick to the facts, and you’ll generally be fine. For every negative fact there are usually at least one or two positive facts. Keep perspective.

The issue is even deeper than this, however. A cynic is someone who attaches more importance to negative facts than to positive or neutral ones. His whole mentality is one big “Ah-HAH! I knew it!” This is a sentiment that implies reality is basically a terrible and horrible place. People are also inevitably and by nature horrible, according to a cynic. It is true that people can be capable of the worst or best things. But if you look at human history, a lot of humanity has come a long way in a comparatively short period of time. When good stands up against evil, good always wins–provided good stands up for itself. Remember Nazi Germany and Communism? Those are two major examples. The same will prove true of terrorism, once better people (who have a lot to lose) actually stand up to it. And beyond world politics, consider the simple standard of living today compared to earlier eras. Wouldn’t you rather live in Western civilization today than any place else today, or any place at all 200 or 300 years ago? I certainly would, despite all the things I see wrong with people and the world today. Money and physical comfort cannot buy happiness, but they sure set the stage for it.

Your question poses a choice between cynicism and naiveté. Again, be objective. Focus on the positive as well as the negative and give the positive more importance. Don’t deny the negative either. Yes, people have free will. They can choose to hurt you or not. Give people the benefit of the doubt, but also require proof of honorable and rational intentions before becoming seriously involved in a financial or emotional relationship. Yes, it’s naive to give away all your emotions or money for free, without someone earning your goodwill and investment first. Yet it’s equally naive to assume that nobody is–or ever could be–worthy of your emotional or material investment. Cynicism is every bit as foolish and impractical a course of action as naive optimism. Once you get this, you’ll realize the folly of cynicism.