cynicism and beyond

I am reposting this due to a techno hitch when I tried to edit it last year.  Also Parker J Palmer’s recent column cited the same poem by Miller Williams. Read his column especially if you’ve already read this.

‘We’re all so critical,’ the young man shook his head, ‘I just can’t say what I really feel!’

open hearted bougainvilleaI know what he means. There’s a thick layer of cynicism in Australian culture that somehow smears across our hearts and stops us getting involved with our own feelings or those of others. Sometimes it seems like we prefer to sneer, or spoon on the irony. We can banter with the best of them, but truly wearing our hearts on our sleeves? We don’t do that—and not just to avoid the cliché.

What is going on with all this cynicism? We’re not alone. It’s a world-wide phenomenon, but we seem especially good at it down here.

I have a sense it’s a way of not feeling the pain in our hearts—the regret, the disappointment, our woundedness from ill-treatment, our yearning for something different, the shame of knowing that we have in some way misbehaved and got it ‘not quite right’, or even badly wrong. And I’m not even going to try just now to hazard where it comes from at a national level, I’m more interested in how we can move beyond it.

I know how much teasing and cynicism has hurt me, even from people I love dearly and it’s not just that I can be hyper-sensitive. I also know how much I’ve hurt others when I’ve chosen it’s cheap pleasures—the small boost in ego, the delight of sharp wit. Some years ago when I was studying in Sydney, a classmate confronted me at the end of the year about something I had said months before. Apparently I had teased him about being a country boy. I couldn’t even remember what I’d said and was shocked that he had been so hurt by something that had just rolled off my tongue. (I was, in those days, even more prone to the sarcastic rejoinder.) Whatever I had said, and however affectionately I may have meant it, I could see he had found it truly painful. And that’s not the only, nor the worst time, I’ve let cynicism drop a bomb. And in this age of terrorism and violence; we all need to avoid our own aggression—especially the aggression which happens heartlessly, unconsciously.

And yes, even now I know that I can still slip up like that; react with a dash of sarcasm rather than choosing a heartfelt response or preferring silence. I also see it everywhere, in all forms of media, even those that claim to be ‘social’ or perhaps especially in those forms. It’s habitual and it’s hurtful and it’s not humorous, or at least not in the most helpful way.

So I wonder, when we tend towards cynicism, if it’s because we’re hiding something—something we haven’t revealed even to ourselves, or to anyone else. Recently I heard Lucinda Williams’ song ‘Compassion’, based on a poem by her father Miller Williams. In urging us towards compassion—daily, habitual compassion—the poet reminds us that cynicism is always a sign:

                                               …always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.

Lucinda honours her father’s words. Her ravaged voice doesn’t chide us, but somehow encourages us to dare to go there, where the spirit really does meet the bone.

That poetic wisdom hints at an antidote. We can find some compassion in ourselves or in others so we can reveal those stories that no ears have heard, the secrets that no eyes have seen, those events in our lives that can cut to the bone. We may need to write our stories in our private journals or in public spaces; to speak them, to reveal them, not indiscriminately but to those we trust, to wise listeners. We can learn to listen more compassionately to our own stories and those of others. Not so that we can be ‘fixed’ or ‘sorted’. As Mary Rose O’Reilley reminds us, most of us don’t need fixing so much as listening back into existence.

When we turn our attention towards ourselves and others with compassion, we permit each other to cross the threshold away from cynicism towards well, yes, almost necessarily grief, regret and sadness, but as pathways towards something new. Truly ‘felt’ feelings, not ‘reacted to’ feelings nor deeply shunned ones, can show us the way. They can lead us towards equanimity which paradoxically involves deeply felt but not intrusive feelings. And by telling our stories and feeling our feelings, we are on our way beyond the culture of cynicism.

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