This is part two of a series about cynicism and the Christian life. In yesterday’s post, I talked about the idea of ‘Hyouka’ – the silent cry for help. I focused in on one particular character named Satoshi and how he uses his cheerful cynicism to cope with his insecurities. In this post, I hope to draw some parallels between myself and Satoshi, and talk about why cynicism, while alluring, is ultimately insufficient.
Satoshi and Me
I see a lot of myself in Satoshi. Both of us have many reasons to be thankful, but we allow our insecurities to overshadow our blessings. Satoshi sees Oreki ability to benefit others with his natural genius, and despairs that he can offer so little. I see others’ ability to be fun and build relationships, or to administrate and counsel, or to push forward with resilience and ambition, and feel very small in comparison. What can I offer to others with my meager abilities? And who will find me worthy of love, respect, and friendship, or even a place in their lives? Irrational as it might be, these comparisons erode my confidence that I can find success or belonging when I engage the world.
But while Satoshi’s cynicism stops at his relationships with others, mine extends to my relationship with God. I battle with nagging doubts that the universe is more like a cruel practical joke than a well planned story. That life is dictated more by absurdity and chaos than by the providence of a caring God. Things just go wrong. The promises of God, if they are true, are only true for others. The loving, faithful, and active God is their God. My God is distant, only waking when he wants to take something away.
These doubts about God and others create a painful anxiety and cynicism begins looking like an attractive strategy. Cynicism guards me from the sting of disappointment by detaching my affections. Not caring gives a steadiness and stability, as well as a reprieve from constant feelings of inadequacy.
Not only that, if I’m a cheerful cynic – if I am nice, self-deprecating, and considerate – I get the added bonus of looking humble. The proud man boast in his achievements; the self-pitying man wallows in his sorrows, but the humble man and the cynic pay little attention to themselves. The difference is that the humble man truly forgets himself in his love for God and others, while the cynic expects the worst from the start and is thus prepared for any result. To the outside world, the two look the same. I can gain a reputation for humility when in reality I’ve just given up hope.
The Insufficiency of Cynicism
Cynicism promises a more secure joy and an easier way of life. But upon closer examination, cynicism destroys our joy, our courage, and our thanksgiving.
I. Cynicism destroys joy and thanksgiving
Fundamentally, cynicism fails because we’re built to care. God has created us as longing creatures and we cannot kill those longings no matter how hard we try. We’re not strong enough. We might be able to convince ourselves we don’t care. We might even project an image of stoic confidence. But deep down, we always know that it is a lie. That our cynicism is our Hyouka – the way we’re trying miserably to cope with our frustrated desires and personal failings.
Because of this, cynicism cannot give us real joy. Satoshi tells Oreki that since he became ‘obsessed with not be obsessed with anything…every day’s been a happy day’. In one sense, Satoshi is right. Avoiding competition allows him to live in an uninterrupted stream of trivial and lighthearted victories. But Satoshi is not truly happy and he knows it. The joys he experiences are frauds – mere imitations of the real thing. Real joys don’t come easily. They require hardwork and perseverance. They involve the real risk of heartbreak, and despair. Real joys, in other words, are born from the very things Satoshi tries so desperately to avoid. Satoshi, in trying to preserve joy, unwittingly creates a false reality where no real joy can exist.
What’s more, cynics like Satoshi cannot even enjoy the good things they do have. The cynic recognizes that he has blessings from God – be it in the form of talents, relationships, or good circumstances. But he views them with a suspicious eye. He denigrates his talents as worthless and insignificant. He sees insincerity, pity, and transience in his relationships. He sees fortunate circumstances as anomalies that might shift for the worst at any moment. The cynic cannot stop and be thankful for his blessings, because he must always protect them. Since he has no hope or courage for the future, all he can do is to desperately hold on to the good things he already has.
II. Cynicism destroys faith and courage
Not only does cynicism destroy our joy, it destroys our courage by severing the root of faith. By faith, we trust in God’s character – his goodness, his wisdom, and his sovereignty. We feel safe to place our hopes and dreams into his hands, and trust him to guide us in the best direction. This is scary because God may withhold our desires and that will hurt. But faith strengthens us to live with courage, because we believe that whatever happens will be for his glory and our good.
Cynicism instead suffocates our desire in order to spare ourselves the hurt of unmet longing. We don’t give God the chance to let us down, and we also don’t give him the chance to show us his faithfulness. This, however, kills our courage. The more and more we do this, the harder it is to step out and trust God. We may see God’s providence in the lives of others but it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that God will work in our lives. God’s acting will seems more like wishful thinking and less like reality.
Cynicism leads to a weak and cowardly life. The cynic has neither the self-assured confidence of the proud man or the quiet strength of the humble man. Rather he is paralyzed by his insecurity and weakness. He has no power to take a risk and step out into the unknown, because he believes all he will find is disappointment.
III. Cynicism destroys our love
Finally, cynicism hurts others and ultimately destroys our capacity to love others. Initially, we think our cheerful aloofness is harmless. We think we can still love others as we did before. But that’s not true. Relationships are built on vulnerability and full engagement, but the cynic cuts himself off prematurely. He can function in surface level relationships, but he must disengage if they become too personal.
In the penultimate episode, Satoshi steps out of Oreki’s shadow and becomes the main focus of the story. Sadly, this episode doesn’t show his growth as a character but rather, as Nick notes, the ‘ugliest secret of the classics club – Satoshi’s self-hatred, and the way that hatred ends up expressing itself as a callousness towards the people who care about him.’
This plays out in Satoshi’s relationship with his longtime friend Mayaka. Mayaka cares deeply for Satoshi. She probably knows him better than he knows himself. And yet, she is still willing to commit herself to him. But Satoshi cannot return her affection because it would threaten the whole system he has created – his world of stable half-joys – and return him to the world of risk. It scares Satoshi to be near someone like Mayaka, who constantly lays her heart on line to be trampled on. Nearness to her exposes his disengagement for what it truly is – cowardice. And so, Satoshi clings to his cynicism and wounds Mayaka with his coldness.
Likewise, our cynicism is not harmless. We harm others by our omission – by failing to help others because we’re afraid we’ll be inadequate. We harm others by our commission – our pessimism and resignation wound those who depend on us. We distance ourselves from the messiness of relationships and accountability and run instead toward isolation, thinking we’ll be safe there. But isolation enables the worst parts of nature. At first, we may isolate ourselves because we’re afraid of being hurt. But eventually we will isolate ourselves because we’re selfish and we no longer care about others. C.S. Lewis, in his famous quote, exposes the deadly result of the cynic’s isolation:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
This is humbling for me to write. Even now, when I look at my Christian life these past years, I wonder: have I really grown in maturity or have I just grown in cheerful cynicism? Is my joy more stable because I love Jesus and trust him more, or because I’ve learned to expect less of God and others? How much have I maintained an appearance of godliness while severing the roots of joy, courage, and faith in my life?
Cynicism is a sham. It promises protection and joy, but delivers a pathetic way of life. Yet, if not cynicism, then what? We do not adopt cynicism because we want to. We do it because the helplessness we feel is so present and real that we must find a way to cope with it. We will not put aside our cynicism unless we find something or someone to address the pain we feel. In the final post, I’ll talk about Gospel hope for those who feel helpless. But until then, farewell!