Beyond Systemic Cynicism
Have you ever wondered why so many people are so bitter? On some days the world just seems to be full of people, that have no sense of empathy, compassion, or decency. It seems as though they don’t even care that they don’t care. In this article, I want to explore the road to cynicism and take a systemic perspective on why it seems to be so prevalent in our society.
This article draws on the work of many different people, but the main concept of cynicism as a result of incoherence with one’s core values stems from Maria Nemeth. You can read more on the idea in her book ‘Mastering Life’s Energies. I try to provide links and attributions wherever I use words or concepts that were conceived of by others.
How does one end up in cynicism?
In contrast to the implication of supportive statements of well-meaning people like “he is just a cynic”, as a response to the hurtful behavior of someone in cynicism, I view it as a state of being, rather than an inherent characteristic of a person. It is the last stop down a road of inaction and detachment from core values. To end up in cynicism — true and bitter cynicism, not sarcasm or dry humor — one needs to consistently do the opposite of what their heart calls them to do. Tempting huh? As I said, cynicism is the last stop on this road. It starts with frustration when one first notices they are not taking action according to their core values. Everyone knows that feeling, it might happen in mild forms a couple of times a week. There is nothing inherently bad about it. In fact, frustration is quite a useful pointer, that we have veered off course a little bit.
The next time you find yourself being frustrated about something, ask yourself: “What matters to me about this situation? And what would someone who cares in this way do next?” Then, go do that thing! This is the most important part. You can’t just expect to feel better by having a “breakthrough” in your head. To get back on track with your core values, the only effective way is to do something in physical reality, that demonstrates what you just saw. And that’s it, no harm done, you went off track for a minute and then you course-corrected. Happens to all of us.
However, if we don’t take action on our frustrations, they keep growing bigger and bigger for a while. They become more and more uncomfortable, irritating, and infuriating. To put an end to this exponential increase of discomfort, the brain has a very effective mechanism: resignation. When frustration becomes too big, we tell ourselves that things are never going to change, so we don’t get so aggravated anymore. We haven’t acted upon something important to us for so long, that it seems as though there could be no way to bring about the change we want to see. It occurs as a version of “I’ve given up on the idea of making this right. There is nothing I can do here.” But at the core of our hearts, we know that we still care and that there is something we can do to change this situation. It makes us go mad, that we are not taking action. To muffle the voice that wants us to go do the right thing, we tell ourselves, that it is way too late now anyway and that it would be too hard to even try.
The discomfort of taking action is a small price to pay, to get out of suffering — Beth Ann Suggs
So if after all the hints and warning signs, that our brain has given us, we still can’t take action according to our core values, we will eventually end up in cynicism. We will truly believe, that there is nothing we can do to change whatever circumstance is important to us. Deep inside we still care a lot, but to not have to go through the discomfort of moving beyond our by now way too familiar stopping points, we will do all sorts of mental yoga to cement the stance that we don’t care anymore. This usually comes with more conclusions about the world, ourselves, and other people, that will be reflected in cynical behavior as we all know it. We construct a whole worldview around our cynicism so that it makes sense.
Why do so many people seem to be in cynicism?
The way we organize our resource flow in the industrial growth society (Joana Macy), is by the logic of markets. To make market economies work efficiently, an abstraction of value (i.e. money) is necessary. On the marketplace, only one thing is valued: someone’s ability to generate money on money return (Jim Rutt). This doesn’t mean that there could never be someone who is completely fulfilled by what they do with their life in a market economy. It just means, that fulfillment is not what market economies optimize for. They create material constraints, that many of us find limiting to our personal growth and the path we would naturally follow if we didn’t have to compete for artificially scarce resources to (in the best case) “succeed” or (usually) just survive. Combine this circumstance with intersectional categories of oppression and stereotypical expectations to what we should do based on our identity and you get a perfect recipe for widespread frustration, resignation, and eventually cynicism. When we are not supported to get clear on what we value at our core and what it is that we’d love to contribute to the world, but rather are confronted with external pressures and expectations, it is only normal that the road to cynicism is familiar to many of us.
What to do about it?
The good news is: recognizing when we missed a turn on the path of our life is a skill we all can develop. It takes some practice but all of us can become masterful at catching even small frustrations, seeing what matters to us, so that we got frustrated, and then acting accordingly. Developing this skill takes some practice and is easier to do with some external support, like that of a life coach for example. Being masterful at this doesn’t mean, that we suddenly have superpowers and can change our circumstances at a glance. It rather speaks to how we show up internally, to the external challenges, that the world will 100% keep presenting us with. Being masterful at this means to be present to one’s core values, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, and acting in coherence with those values.
Beyond developing this skill for yourself, supporting people close to you, when they find themselves frustrated or resigned is another great way to move beyond systemic cynicism. Meeting someone with compassion in a moment of frustration and supporting them to see what matters so deeply to them, so that they got frustrated about it, is one of the most loving things we can do for the people around us.
Finally, since this article is about systemic cynicism, work to effect sustainable change in the systems you are part of. See where you can contribute to the establishment of lasting support structures, that take the pressure off of people or support them to dismantle long-held ways of viewing the world, so they can be in touch with their core values and the inner voice of wisdom more.
The way into a world beyond cynicism is the same as the way into a world beyond the industrial growth society and the same as the way into a liveable future for all and the same as the way into any future where humans can not only survive but thrive on this planet.
If you liked this article, if you want to discuss it, if you see things differently, or if you want to take the idea further, please contact me. By mail, Linked-In, or Twitter. I look forward to your message!