Gentle Cynicism: Honing the Human Self

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The roots of gentle cynicism go back a ways for me beginning with the reading of its ancient roots and an episodic impetus of my experience in the military between 2003-8 when I had the an encounter which called for serious engagement and relinquishment from the dominant American script. See “From Soldier to Conscientious Objector”.

Gentle Cynicism has become a dynamic filter of sorts (dialectical in aspect, phenomenological in mind) between one’s self and the world that in a way sifts chaff from wheat, e.g., what is accepted from what is best, what misses the mark from what is actually participating with or working toward a higher ideal/vision (Shalom, the Way, Tao, The Middle Way) [a personal nomenclature]

GC Logo

Logo for Society of Gentle Cynics

After more than twelve years  “Gentle Cynicism” has become for me a way of moving through (not stepping away from) tensions where there is a complex array of easy-to-get-to thin practices, answers and ideals on one side; while on the other, profound, thick sources of questions and insights that invite persistent souls toward the way of becoming more fully human. The task is one of becoming comfortable with doubt, negation and integration via dialectic process knowing that forms are dynamic and developing in time.

In the more recent season this lively practice has supported a focus around how I work and live in the day-to-day, being aware of the challenges that come from living in a society that widely turns a blind eye, is ensnared by the technological craze at the expense of their minds (geist); taking on the dominant story, for they have no story; and realizing that I need and want to be and stay awake/alive in a way that surmounts the dark reality expressed by Thomas Merton in The New Man.

“The flesh and passions, of themselves, tend to anarchy, being at the mercy of sense stimulation, and hence responding blindly and automatically to every stimulus that presents itself . . . the psyche of man struggles in a thousand ways to silence the secret voice of anxiety.”

Some past musing and inner projects are captured in my ongoing public journal Notes of a Gentle Cynic

The Art and Honing of Self

One of the inherent frustrations among Westerns in modernity is the quest to discover one’s purpose, sustainable contentment, and further making a livelihood out of meaningful work. Daily we are subject to an overwhelming barrage of scripts that promise to make us safe and happy yet fail to do so.  Hence the notion of happiness is generally connected to moments in a day that must be maintained by rising above boredom or repressing chronic, internal anxieties or stress that would quickly exhaust the average person if it were not for material consumption, the technologies created to “save time” and the need to be always doing something.

Carl Jung said that with all this resistance and distraction, consciousness is still pressing forward “to its own inertia, but the unconscious lags behind, because the strength and inner resolve needed for further expansion have been sapped.” Hence there is a disunity with oneself that breeds discontent. A critical atmosphere thus must develop—the necessary prelude to conscious realization. This is a quiet call from within to listen, to pay attention to the hidden, to possess the secret imprisoned in inescapable egotism yet gradually to be revealed by way of discovery, a natural progression within all of us that often goes unnoticed or unheard until it is late in life. It is the inner voice that begs your reflection now and over time and promises wholeness, completeness, human flourishing.

While I have been on this path for many years, I recently came across an exercise in Friedrich Nietzsche’s  Schopenhauer as Educator that essentially was written to provide an a starting point to youth or any searching individual who is willing to chase a set of probing questions over time as a method to assist in the cardinal yet byzantine task of knowing oneself. Nietzsche begins, and I recommend as a threshold this project.

“How can one know himself? It is a dark, mysterious business: if a hare has seven skins, a individual may skin himself seventy times seven times without being able to say, “Now that is truly you; that is no longer your outside.” It is also an agonizing, hazardous undertaking thus to dig into oneself, to climb down toughly and directly into the tunnels of one’s being. How easy it is thereby to give oneself such injuries as no doctor can heal. Moreover, why should it even be necessary given that everything bears witness to our being – our friendships and animosities, our glances and handshakes, our memories and all that we forget, our books as well as our pens. For the most important inquiry, however, there is a method. Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question:”

Here is Nietzsche’s method laid out in the form of questions. I suggest take several weeks to do this. Lay out your musings on paper or document; keep coming back to it and lay it out, expand it as described below.  The numbering is mine for which I recommend following before moving to the next phase. I have provided some alternative translations in the brackets.

‘[1] “What have you up to now truly loved, [2] what has drawn your soul upward, [3] mastered [dominated] it and blessed [uplifted] it too [at the same time]?” [4] Set up these things that you have honored [revered objects] before you, and, maybe, they will show you, in their being and their order, a law which is the fundamental law of your own self. [5] Compare these objects, consider how one completes and broadens and transcends and explains another, [6] how they form a ladder on which you have all the time been climbing to your [true] self: for your true being lies not deeply hidden in you, but an infinite height above you, or at least above that which you do commonly take to be yourself.’

Finally Nietzsche exhorts, “There may be other methods for finding oneself, for waking up to oneself out of the anesthesia in which we are commonly enshrouded as if in a gloomy cloud — but I know of none better than that of reflecting upon one’s educators and cultivators.” Here (the method above) Nietzsche gives us a place to start—consider those who have informed use over time, the various people and actions of others that have influenced us and have in part breathed life into us or imparted to us a model of what we intrinsically view as genuine and worthy of holding on to which may well inform us about the person we are and wish to be.

The Niche of Self-Employment

Even today, society still breeds an impression of serfdom in the common workplace. think about the terminology people use and how they act.

A 2013 Gallup poll showed 70% of workers report that they either hate their job or are actively disengaged from what they do. Only 30% said they like their bosses or enjoy their job. Those complaining about their jobs, of course, is not new. Complaining about “bosses from hell” is as reliable as death and taxes. People have sense little control, declining economic security, and are not experiencing a healthy balance between work and their home life and have less energy to pursue their avocations.

As a professional and committed to self care, I seek employment that allows wysecycles_webme to be close to home so that allows me at a healthy level have time and energy to engage in a mix of vocational and avocational pursuits. This is the sphere where I can “unite my avocation and my vocation as my two eyes are one in sight. . .  and the work is play for mortal stakes . . . ” (R. Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”)

I also work at the unconscious level, e.g. with a power of language. As a professional I refuse to subscribe to the term “boss”. Firstly, it is a label that is commonly used by American minority groups to refer to white people (The Racial Slur Database). Secondly it fosters a position and practice of over dependence
on someone else that impairs growth and self development of e.g., one’s core virtues, and win/win arrangements.

Thirdly, I expect supervision to align to a basic understanding of Kadushin’s model of supervision where the primary foci is . . .

  • Administrative – the promotion and maintenance of good and healthy standards of work, co-ordination of practice with policies of administration, the assurance of an efficient and smooth-running office without over-taxing the organization;
  • Educational – the educational development of each individual worker on the staff in a manner calculated to evoke one fully to realizeone’s possibilities of usefulness while recognizing individual autonomy; and
  • Supportive – the maintenance of harmonious working relationships, the cultivation of espirt de corps.

Fourthly, within the hidden wholeness of human kind is a deep calling to grow into one’s own authentic self-hood. The world will be a better place when more organizations champion and individuals cultivate a sense of being “self employed” where one makes choices about their life, the work they do, how they do it, and how
they maneuver relationships and conduct them.

Detecting, pursuing and actualizing such vocation can become “the place where your deep gladness meets the worlds’s deep need” (F Buechner).

Photograph: Ben Wyse of Wyse Cycles who runs his own bicycle repair business out of his home while offering “self-propelled mobile bicycle repair service” to his customers.

Niches of Positive Psychology

Moving beyond the basics of positive psychology, e.g., Maslow, developmental schemas, strength-based perspective, internal resilience, psychology of religion, hope-based psychology, etc., I experience a re-orientation by way of a fresh, close reading of Aristotle’s virtue ethics and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. From here I now seek to develop a thorough, comprehensive, practical understanding and framework that emerges from what C. Peterson and M. E. P. Seligman have begun: a “Manual of Sanities” in a collaborative text, Character, Strengths, and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Oxford, 2004). From Aristotle, MacIntyre, Peterson and Seligman, and others, and with my innate desire and need, I reclaim ethics’ and psychology’s early concern with virtue and character by drawing on ancient and recent hard-learned lessons about how to conduct good psychological science while developing an informed, earnest praxis that is in contrast to the DSM’s focus on illness and deficit, hence the categorization of “a manual of the sanities.”

The niche of positive psychology evolves from the need to deconstruct modernity’s need to categorize illness and pathologies, which includes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) with its first edition printed in 1952 (DSM-I) and its most recent (DSM-V) in 2013. See ‘Stopping the “Madness”: Positive Psychology and the Deconstruction of the Illness Ideology and the DSM’ by James E. Maddux in  Handbook of Positive Psychology, C. R. Snyder, Shane J. Lopez, Editors, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002, 13-25.

Widening the focus includes paying attention to human strengths and environmental resources. This perspective should tap into an insider rather than the outsider perspective; e.g., the person and/or system experiencing the behavior, feelings and problems and relative potency of positives versus negative factors. Expanding our attention includes the use of various approaches that see life beyond the baseline offering not only interventions in therapy; they promote health at every level. A brief list of approaches includes that following with some examples:

  • Emotion-focused (resilience, concept of flow, positive emotions)
  • Cognitive-focused (creativity, Well-being, hope theory, self-efficacy)
  • Self-based (authenticity, humility, reality negotiation)
  • Interpersonal (compassion, forgiveness, altruism)
  • Biological (toughness, role of neuropsychology, biology of social support)
  • Specific Coping Approaches (sharing one’s story; pursuit of meaningfulness, humor, meditation)

While this subject is vast, growing and vitally needed to promote more fully human functioning (“complete mental health”), I provide verse to convey the mystical measure of fullness.

“The dead man erases the word for God to better understand divinity.”

Marvin Bell, The Book of the Dead Man (13.1, 11)

A Body of Broken Bones

An Erasure of “A Body of Broken Bones” written by Thomas Merton in

A Thomas Merton Reader Thomas P. McDonnell, Ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc. 1962.

Dan Seifert, August 2014

    Identity in one mystical measure of fullness,
    perfection remaining distinct nevertheless
    omnia in omnibus.

    Fire alone refine, separate slag and dross,
    consume entirely in hidden rock and dirt;
    suffer dismemberment. Body
    drawn and quartered in agony,
    vegetates to avarice and lust of breed,
    divisions, wounds tear from union—
    another member torn
    limb from limb.

    The innocent who love—
    hidden, possess the secret
    imprisoned in inescapable egotism.
    Love suffer[s], resetting a body
    of broken bones: every lost member
    of human hatred born in isolation.
    Others projecting proud, happy hate
    consumes its own spiritual ruin.
    Strong hate support[s] idol of war
    with great toil, drink[s] blood, eat[s] flesh,
    thrive[s] on collective fanaticism.

    Unworthiness lies at the root,
    blind to self, seeing wrongs
    in someone else. Aware-ness tempt[s]
    a subtler, searing, nauseating hate:
    everything fainted, everything foul.
    Weak hate is weak love.

    Begin the fight to love—discovery[ing]
    no special consequence while
    hatred smolder[s] under gray ashes;
    the pain of reunion heal[s] all wounds.
    The basic tenant in Natural Law—
    treat others as we would like them to treat us—
    demanded of every human being is willed
    whether I find the formula satisfactory.

    Compassion, suffer, share with others
    joys, sufferings, ideas, needs, desires,
    even groups regarded as hostile.
    Contemplate the recovery of our union,
    peace in the unquiet city of those
    fighting for possession,
    monopoly of goods and pleasures.

    Flight from the world, free from self-concern—
    it is dangerous to merely be alone.

Disclosure of the Dying Animal

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

– B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”


The disclosure of The Dying Animal is portrayed by Philip Roth in the protagonist, David Kepesh, an unapologetic brainy sophisticate and borderline sexual predator, a survivor of the 1960’s who is a living advocate for a free-love ethic. His art is sex, not love: “Why but for the pleasure do I choose to live as I do, imposing as few constraints on my independence as possible?”

Yet he becomes seriously obsessed and attached to a beautiful young woman, Consuela Castillo, the daughteDyingAnimal.jpgr of Cuban exiles, who for him is “a true work of art.” While fixated on her bodily beauty with monumental breasts, she later in the thinning plot becomes “as old as him” as she reveals that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer and has to have a radical mastectomy.

The story takes a serious turn after Kepesh’s best male friend and colleague, George O’Hearn, dies only after awakening from a comma some twelve hours before his death and kisses everyone in the room. Kepesh informs us, but “we all knew that what we had witnessed was the last amazing act of George’s life.”

My read of The Dying Animal is with an ongoing curiosity about the aging male psyche negotiating the aging process and the lingering savage urge. I additionally found it instructive along the Freudian undercurrents describing Kepesh’s experiences, as well as his vacuum for love as attachment, seen as something needed to be avoided as impediments on the soul.

Kepesh never again masters his own soul, and loses his way with respect to his own morality. He has mixed love and sex after restricting them for so long in the recesses of his mind; the weight of this compound brings his ethological structure crashing down around him. Thus he looks outward, toward some other repository of truth to seek some sort of affirmation. Kepesh in monologue talks to others whose identities are never clear. He is telling his story, and we realize that he is looking for someone to tell him he is right, to tell him what he needs to hear; and we see the man in full, bewildered by his own power, lost in the Byzantine complexity of his own sexuality, something he thought he controlled with his rules.

A Disclosing Theme Felt in the Bones

 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

Qohelet, 1.2

“Everything is meaningless” functions as the motto of Qohelet, a thesis that validates the monologue and controls what we read throughout the text. It sets the stage and supports a reader/critic response (reader-response theory) that recognizes the reader as an active agent who imparts “real existence” to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation. Hence, the idea of “meaningless” (Hebrew, hebel) is a foundational part of reality felt by all whether reflected or not.

Hebel is defined as vapor, breath; figuratively, vanity;  also identical to the name of the ill-fated, second son of Adam, Abel, who was killed by the hand of his bother Cain. It connotes something empty or worthless or useless. Hebel is a versatile image suggesting certain distinctive nuances according to the particular context in which it is found. Some of the numerous suggestions concerning its translation are from ephemerality, emptiness, futility, even meaninglessness to absurdity and shit as well as unfathomable-ness”.

Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of the absurdissimum or “the extremity of absurd experiences, the recognition of the irrational, orderless universe which both traditional and modern ‘faiths’ resist and deny.” Søren Kierkegaard made extensive use of the term describing absurdity as “the disorienting but sublime paradox of faith itself.” Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus describes the idea of absurdity in a variety of ways that mesh with Qohelet’s monologues such as the following:

“[A] feeling that deprives the mind of sleep”

A deprivation of “the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land” (in exile)

A “divorce between man and his life”

A “divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints”

Something that one “believes to be true that must “determine [one’s] action”

An “odd state of soul in which the void becomes eloquent”

“[T]he metaphysical state of the conscious man”

A moment when “the stage sets collapse”

A “definitive awakening”

A “revolt of the flesh”

“[T]he denseness and strangeness of the world”

“[T]he familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photograph”

“[T]he elementary and definitive aspect of the [mortal] adventure”

“[L]ucid reason noting its limits”

While challenging to translate consistently, the term hebel serves a general function in Qohelet’s discourse of setting in starkest relief the inefficacy of certain aspects of life that must bear the weight of deeply seated human longings and expectations. Hebel is like a mirage of sorts, or more profoundly, a fata morgana in which human efforts, hopes, and plans “evaporate” before life’s vicissitudes and are replaced by want and misery. Qohelet contends that it is part and parcel of the very structure of life itself.

To see the concept of hebel as a universal experience, we might draw from a foundational teaching of the Eastern tradition of Buddhism, Dukkha.  Dukkha is part of conditioned existence, a multi-faceted word that literally means “that which is difficult to bear”. It can mean suffering, stress, pain, anguish, affliction or unsatisfactoriness. It can be gross or very subtle, from extreme physical and mental pain and torment to subtle inner conflicts and existential malaise.

As Dukkha is a reality taught in the Four Noble Truths, which says, “All life knows suffering” (Truth 1), hebel is the foundational human experience that can make or break the spirit of humankind as they deal with the obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying (developmental); the anxiety or stress of trying to hold on to things that are constantly changing; and a basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, because all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance.

Honing Hope Against the Groping for Human Fullness

“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”  – William James

Maria Popova of the website Brain Pickings, in an interview with Krista Tippet argued, “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naïveté. I try to live in this place between the two to try to carve a life out [hone of niche] there because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom and against which it is the sort of futile self-protection mechanism.”

Here Popova practice provides an elegant example of a well-adjusted, thoughtful person who tackles via “a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why.” It is an public example into how to live and what it means to lead a good life.

Here I unpack the above statement a bit as it oscillates with my idea of gentle cynicism as a way of navigating the challenging territory between and to prevent full-blown cynicism while working and hope.  For me gentle cynicism is dealing with the limitations of a world juxtaposed with the social and moral issues of the day filtered through narrative, poetry, philosophy and social ethic (tools for critical thinking).

Here is a visual, continuum model that places “hope” as the mean good.

Cynicism   [apathy]              gentle cynicism               Hope                 mediocrity                    Naiveté                     

                    ——-  Critical Thinking   ———————>                 —-  Unreflected Life  ————–>

[Self-protective resignation]                                                                                                   [Blind resignation]

Popova continues, “But on the other hand, believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation because we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better [telos]. And I think in order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization, but especially in order to thrive; we need to bridge critical thinking with hope.”

Hope seeks out possibility, requires necessity, and is the proper relating of self to itself.  (Paul Ricoeur).  In Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death, Ricoeur writes that despair comes from the self misrelating to itself. The misrelation is not recognizing what the self is, which is synthesis of the infinite and the finite. Hope, conversely, is a proper relating of the self to itself, especially concerning the expectations one has of oneself. Expect too much of self, then one may despair of attaining one’s goals; expect too little of self and one may well despair of ever accomplishing anything at all.

In CR Snyder’s Hope Theory, the perceived capacity to derive pathways to desired goals (in relation to mean goods) and to motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways creates meaningful hope. Here hope is a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy) and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals).

The trilogy of Hope:

    Goals – anchor one’s thinking about the future to specific goals

    Agency – those capable of pursuing goals, who believe in their own capacity

    Pathways – those that can imagine or plan way to achieve goals step by step along a pathway

Gentle Cynicism is a place of tension to prevent full-blown cynicism while working out or negotiating a context of time requiring a response to move more fully to a place where hope enlarges.  For me gentle cynicism is dealing with the limitations of a world juxtaposed with the social and moral issues of the day filtered through narrative, poetry, philosophy and social ethic.

On one level gentle cynicism is a response to an overly enthusiastic cultural philosophy that does not take into serious consideration the reality of time and chance, which smacks the face of most people, even those with the best intentions.

The ancient practice of gentle cynicism can be seen in the text of Qohelet.   Here is a recognizable line from this text (also known in its later Greek title of Ecclesiastes).

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. (3.19)

While Qohelet does not completely disavow the idea of cause and effect, he genuinely recognizes that one cannot assume it is that simple. To be sure, the relationship between merit and recompense is chaotic. One is better served by exercising a healthy measure of doubt rather than just simply “having faith” in conventional thinking (cultural assumption). Take the example of medicine. Medicine indeed may be a remedy in this sphere of temporality; yet one may be better (or best) served through other unrevealed (hidden) alternatives that are in tune with perhaps more original aspects of what it means to be fully human; e.g., suffering, doubt. Furthermore, what will become of us in the end is the kind of inquiry that begs our attention.

Practicing cynicism today (not the modern concept, but a philosophical way of living with ancient classical and medieval roots) takes the form of a dynamic filter between one’s soul and the world that sifts chaff from wheat; i.e., what is accepted from what is best and what misses the mark from what is actually participating with or working toward God’s Shalom (a vision of wholeness, peace, grace, wellness, wisdom) and eudaimonia, the mean goods as taught by Aristotle.

This kind and quality of cynicism is a way of training the mind and soul (self) to discover and experience more fully the fullness of God’s creative, available energy or life, and less the draining emptiness and forthcoming bitterness of the things, ways and scripts of this world that (without this training) will ensnare and pull us into its subtle downward spiral without our knowing it.

Gentle cynicism is a way of moving through (not stepping away from) tensions where there is a complex array of easy-to-get-to thin practices (answers) and ideals on one side; while on the other, profound, thick sources of questions and insights that invite persistent souls toward the way of becoming more fully human.


Huskey, Rebecca K., Paul Ricoeur on Hope: Expecting the Good. New York, Peter Lang Publishing. 2009.

Popova, Maria,  transcript from interview with, “Cartographer of Meaning in a Digital Age” accessed from On Being, 05/14/2015.

Snyder, C. R. (Ed.).  Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2000.