Happy New Year!
Regular readers will know that I like to pepper my pieces with references to ancient Chinese sages, Medieval mystics and contemporary shamanic pioneers.
This article is inspired by the wonderful cast and crew of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing.
A client and I recently shared our love of TV programmes that choose to focus on the best, rather than the worst, of our fellow human beings. We’d both enjoyed shows that were unashamedly edited to appreciate, raise up and celebrate those who featured. This in contrast to much reality TV, and, as we discussed, most media, news, and public discourse which prefers to ramp up the fear, failure and frailties associated with our human condition.
These are worrying times; complex and challenging. There’s much to disagree with and plenty to tut about, in the politics, leadership and culture we see emerging.
It’s very easy to become cynical.
Indeed, in some sub cultures – a progressive, professional, educated type setting – a certain world-weary, chronically exasperated, somewhat cynical posture has become rather the norm. Cynicism seems to have intelligence and insight behind it. It claims, ‘you can’t fool us, we know the politicians and leaders are full of the usual BS. We know the system is corrupt, broken and unfair. You can’t pull the wool over our eyes.” Cynicism appears clever, reasonable and informed.
The question is not whether cynicism is deserved or accurate, but rather where does it get us?
What does it bring to your life and your potential for creative action, and joyful relating in the world?
True cynicism requires a deep faith in human nature:
The problem is not actually in cynicism. Cynicism originated as A Greek philosophy in 4th Century BCE. For the original Cynics an indifference to norms and rejection of conventional society was part of a deeper search for truth, authenticity and alignment with one’s true nature.
“…for the Cynics, the purpose of life is to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people can gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which is natural for themselves, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, and fame, and even flouting conventions openly and derisively in public. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions.[i]”
Original cynicism deliberately goes against social norms and expectations because it trusts in a natural wisdom and freedom that lies beyond them. Thus, real cynicism is actually based on faith in human nature. It critiques convention and norms in order to bring out the seam of gold buried deeper in our nature.
Consider for a moment that any cynicism you feel today – whether about the world, certain people, or about yourself – is related to a deeper faith in the goodness of human nature that has become buried or obscured.
Unconscious cynicism and the problem of fixed mindsets:
Cynicism becomes stale, grey and energetically dull once it is an unconscious, fixed habit, rather than part of a conscious search for freedom and beauty.
And that’s what cynicism has become for too many of us. And that is not healthy.
Conscious cynicism, in line with the Greeks, means interrogating, critiquing and challenging prevailing narratives we receive, in search of deeper truth. It requires the capacity to think freely, looking and stepping beyond received stories about who we are and what is going on. This is wonderful. This is valuable. It’s the little boy who points out that the emperor is not in fact bedecked in elegant robes, but is naked. It links strongly to Jung’s concept of individuation as the truly worthwhile goal of human life. True cynicism, relies on a fundamental trust in a basic, natural goodness in human nature.
Used consciously, cynicism – like all human qualities – is valuable. It points us home.
But, in these rather sombre times, it’s easy to get sucked unwittingly into a fixed mindset where all is cynical, and all must be. Then our cynicism is no longer conscious, no longer a tool to be used wisely. It becomes the subtle atmosphere, the immovable background, the unconscious default. Perhaps this happens slowly and accidentally – like a boiling frog. Or maybe we think that such a stance gives us kudos, status and credibility in certain circles.
Either way we’re pulled into a fixed mindset, that then colours all else. Cynicism stops being based on a deeper trust in life and becomes nihilistic and negative – life denying. And then the situation becomes hopeless.
In 2022, why not be cynical about your cynicism?
So why not be cynical about that? If you notice you’ve become habitually cynical about the world, or some aspect of your life, or history, or future, ask yourself:
“What’s so good about being cynical? Maybe cynicism is not all it’s cracked up to be?”
Be consciously and deliberately and playfully cynical about your cynicism. See where that takes you.
A great way to get beyond any fixed mindset is to use its own energy consciously. Another (better) way of saying this is that whenever we can consciously experience and express any energy or quality, it frees us up and provides more space and possibility. When we are fixatedly or unconsciously expressing it, it has us by the neck, and sits in the background, inevitably creating problems and limitation.
This year, be cynical about your cynicism. You may find something light, and free and fun on the other side!
Being naïve as a radical act
Remember that the original cynics went against social norms and conventions in order to untap a deeper wellspring of life and freedom.
So, what happens once it becomes the norm to adopt a weary, resigned, sceptical posture?
At that point a true cynic would have nothing to do with it! They would not go along with such a position just ‘cos that’s what colleagues, or Twitter, or mates down the pub do. Blindly following the convention is the precise opposite of the original cynics. Antisthenes and his chums would do something quite different.
Consider whether being consciously optimistic, trusting and joyful is the true radical act for you this year.
Notice how easily dismissed such a position is. Somehow we’ve come to believe that the intelligence and insight is with the cynics. Maybe optimism and joy are for naïfs, or children, or fools?
Notice if you hold an unconscious, fixed, background mindset that values the cynical, pessimistic and world weary. Does it marginalise the part of you that can be youthful, in wonder and joyful even with politics the way it is, the world the way it is, and you the way you are?
Perhaps staying connected to wonder, awe and joy despite everything is the truly radical and intelligent position. And if it is, if that’s true, what would you do differently this year?
Now go do that. And let me know how you get on.
As they on Strictly, “Fab-U-Lous Darling!!!”
Happy New Year. May disco lights, fake tan and sequins effortlessly merge with profundity, insight and wisdom in the great cosmic ballroom that is your life.
If you would like to move beyond cynicism this year, and discover how to position your work, life and leadership to make a genuine, positive and creative impact on global challenges, please read about The Compassionate Professional Revolution programme.