Saturday, October 5, 2013

Why We're So Cynical

This is funny. Why? Because it’s true, and we like the fact that someone was willing to say it so directly.

We laugh because in this artwork the cliché kindergarten advice: “You can be whatever you want to be” is shown to be a cotton-candy fluffpiece of rhetoric that melts away in the dreary rain of reality.

Guess what, kids? Cinderella’s castle is mostly just an empty façade, constructed entirely for its commercial value. And that pretty woman in the ball gown? She’s not really a princess, either.

And this is a good thing. It would be delusional to live in Fantasyland. So we laugh at cynical drawings like these.

But sometimes I think we laugh because it hurts and we don’t want to admit it. We have seen dreams die. We have told ourselves we will never be good enough for something—marriage, a career, a goal, a eulogy filled with purpose and impact. We know people with the potential to be something great who have been shoved down by circumstances of life. We are surrounded by broken things and failures and big blank pages of our future stories that we have no control over. And it scares us, but we don’t know how to be scared.

I see pictures like this, and I laugh a little and nod…but something deep inside of me says, “Why are you laughing? This is not right! This is not the way things should be.” And I tell it to be quiet and lighten up a little.

We laugh because we have to, because we want to feel happiness and humor and joy but it isn’t there and we don’t know where to find it. So we joke about hard things. We post and tweet and blog about our deepest hurts without acknowledging that they even sting a little. We proudly wear the label of “cynic,” because that somehow means being intelligent, independent, and brave, and we want to be recognized as all of those things.

Maybe it’s not fair to say “we,” not really. I don’t know about your experience, and shouldn’t pretend I do. (Although I do know this attitude is fairly typical of this generation.)

How about this: I am a cynic, and on most days, I am quite proud of that fact.

This isn’t always bad. Black humor, like black coffee, can be bitter, but it wakes us up.

Sometimes, though, I hear a child laugh, and I wonder if I’m missing something.

Kids can’t understand sarcasm yet. They haven’t been told that the proper reaction to feeling lonely is to cover it up with jokes, or that you have to wallpaper over insecurities with self-deprecation. When they laugh, it’s because something struck them as funny. It’s not a defense mechanism or a carefully plotted strategy to appear witty. And that’s why I smile involuntarily whenever I hear a child laugh, even if it’s at something as dumb as a nonsensical knock-knock joke.

Because I realize children have it right after all. They have a natural innocence.

As an adult, I think it takes a little more to have child-like faith. It means being brave enough to love life even though you can read the headlines of the daily news. It means seeing the image of God in broken places and calling it beautiful. It means holding a solemn moment of silence for the way things ought to be instead of scoffing them away.

It means holding up what you know are messy, oversimplified crayon drawings and being proud of them anyway because you know your dad loves them.

I want to learn how to do this: how to honestly and graciously be afraid and lonely and sad, while at the same time still appreciating all that’s good about life. There is a place for cynicism…but I don’t want it to define me.