“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,”Maya Angelou wrote in contemplating courage in the face of evil. In the decades since, cynicism has become a cultural currency as deadly as blood diamonds, as vacant of integrity and long-term payoff as Enron. Over the years, I have written about, spoken about, and even given a commencement address about the perilous laziness of cynicism and the ever-swelling urgency of not only resisting it but actively fighting it — defiance which Leonard Bernstein considered an essential countercultural act of courage.
Today, as our social and political realities swirl into barely bearable maelstroms of complexity, making a retreat into self-protective cynicism increasingly tempting, such courage is all the harder and all the more heroic.
When cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas. Cynicism means your automatic answer becomes “No.” Cynicism means you presume everything will end in disappointment.
And this is, ultimately, why anyone becomes cynical. Because they are scared of disappointment. Because they are scared someone will take advantage of them. Because they are fearful their innocence will be used against them — that when they run around gleefully trying to cram the whole world in their mouth, someone will try to poison them.
Brain Pickings by Maria Popova <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss