“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. http://onbeing.org/program/transcript/7584#main_content.
Snyder, C. R. (Ed.). Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2000.