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The Danger of Being a Cynic

This weekend, the President of the United States sat down with comedian Marc Maron for an interview on his podcast WTF. President Obama was asked about his disposition as he occupies the most polarizing, powerful and high-pressure job in the history of the world: The leader of the biggest country on earth in the midst of foreign wars, domestic political vitriol and economic turmoil. The president said:

When you wake up every day, you say to yourself, “Are things a little better?” If you take that longview, than you’re less nervous, or stressed about the day-to-day ups and downs … You start blocking stuff out, and staying focused on the ultimate destination … Some of it’s temperament. I always say, part of this is just being born in Hawaii. I feel like that fortified me. There’s a certain element of chill—you get Hawaii in the mind.

Not everyone likes, supports or agrees with Obama’s politics, but if there’s one thing that can be said for the president, it’s that he’s an optimist. People will (and do) debate how much of a success (or failure) his administration has been on any given issue, but he’s tapped into something all effective leaders seemed to have learned: People follow optimists.

Look at the companies that aren’t only incredibly successful, but are also changing the world with their innovation—companies like Apple, Tesla or Google. The one thing they have in common isn’t just great products. It’s that they are led by people who genuinely believe the things they are doing can make the world a better place—or, as Steve Jobs famously aspired, they can leave “a dent in the universe.” The same could be said of many leaders in politics, faith and activism: Often, the ones with the most influence carry themselves in a way makes others believe things will get better.

It’s not that idealists like Jobs or Elon Musk don’t see the challenges in front of them. It’s that they choose to see them as obstacles that can be overcome. Sometimes optimists are successful. Sometimes they fail. But their disposition and belief in what they are called to do never changes.

Christians—or anyone who wants to enact change in the world—can learn from this attitude.

The Appeal of the Pop-Culture Cynic

Being cynical, defeated, fearful and constantly angry can feel like the right thing. Those can be rational responses to overwhelming circumstances. But cynicism is a slippery slope.

Go pretty much anywhere online, turn on talk radio or watch cable news, and you’ll find no shortage of cynics using biting humor, fear or outrage to get viewers, listeners and readers.

If you are looking for an audience, all of those tactics work.

The reason people like watching others yell at each other is because fear and anger are compelling—they’re both visceral emotions that tend to be contagious. Getting angry over a dumb Facebook post is easy, because a lot of them are meant to provoke. Social media is full of cynicism traps baited with over-the-top headlines, ignorance and outrage.

Cynics can make great entertainers, but optimists are effective leaders.

The Delicate Balance

At times, cynics have their place, and they can have a positive effect. Satirical outlets like The Colbert Report and The Onion have been incredibly effective at using biting parody to call out injustice and make fun of some of the ridiculous aspects of our culture.

Anger can be warranted in the face of injustice. There are moments where cynicism can help highlight areas that need to change. But these shouldn’t be our default dispositions.

When the tone turns from poignant to pessimistic, it starts to form a downward spiral that’s hard to pull out of. This is a trap that Christians—if they really believe the Gospel—have to avoid.

Cynicism is effective at stirring temporary reactions, but in the end, it’s the wide-eyed, hopeful optimists that end up actually shaping history and effecting long-term change.

Why Jesus Was Never Cynical

When Jesus walked the earth, there were plenty of reasons for Him or His followers to be cynical. The people in His community had waited centuries for a Messiah. They were oppressed by a tyrannical government.

Jesus knew all of this. But He also knew the big picture—He brought a love that defied circumstance.

People were attracted to the message of Jesus because it wasn’t based on the reality of the day-to-day. It wasn’t cynical. It wasn’t fearful. It was hopeful. It was restful.

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Railing against Rome, religiosity or how bad things were probably would have drawn some temporary audiences. But Jesus was looking for followers, not fans.

Jesus didn’t ignore the realities of a broken world. Instead, He embraced them and made them opportunities for redemption and healing. He didn’t pretend the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who are reviled and persecuted didn’t exist. He said they are blessed, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.

Fast forward almost 2,000 years to a summer day when Martin Luther King Jr. addressed communities facing daily persecution and a system that actively subjected African-Americans to injustice. He gave a speech that helped change history. He didn’t do it by stoking anger or fear. Like many great leaders, he did it by outlining a dream of a better future. In the face of seemingly insurmountable circumstances, he choose hope, not cynicism:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

Christians in the Age of Cynicism

King understood that the power of the Gospel is that it is about hope. Jesus taught people the power of redemption. He showed people the old will pass away, and something new, something better, something redeemed, will take its place.

The Internet has made everyone capable of amplifying their own cynicism, criticizing others for their politics or theology, arguing over issues outside of our control. It’s a pit anyone can fall into, but it’s one we have to avoid if we really want to be the salt and light we are called to be.

There is a time for outrage. But if we let anger, cynicism and outrage takeover, then the change we want—in our Churches, culture or in the lives of people we care about—is going to be harder to come by.

Hope isn’t always rational. Redemption doesn’t always make sense. But that’s the point of faith. That’s the message we’re supposed to be spending our time spreading.

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