Part 1: On Cynicism

I originally wrote the following passage for a Good Friday reflection in 2007, unknowingly done one week before the Virginia Tech shooting. The intent in re-posting here is not to lessen the tragedy of what has just occurred in Connecticut, but to speak truth about how little has changed five years later. Kyrie eleison.

The statistic is that roughly 18,000 children die each day from hunger and malnutrition alone. This does not include those who die from preventable diseases like rotavirus (which causes severe diarrhea and kills approximately 600,000 children a year even though it is vaccinatable, preventable, and treatable) and cholera, or the treatable ones like malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV. This does not include the children who are caught in the genocide of Sudan, or the vicious military crossfire of civil conflicts as in Iraq and Afghanistan, or those whose limbs have been blown off by landmines designed to look like toys, or those who have been conscripted into military service in Uganda or the Congo. It does not include those who are pressed into the sex trafficking industry, like the 100,000 or so children in Cambodia. It does not include those who die alone, cold, and friendless in the streets of Calcutta or New York City or those who are shot to death in the gang fights of Newark. It does not include the upper-middle class teenager or celebrity that died from a drug overdose or drunk driving or any other death we might consider as a tragic consequence of wealth.

Some people have called me cynical for saying these things. They say that I am being bitter or despondent or a sourpuss and that it’s just “not natural” to look at the world that way. But the frightening truth is that it is natural because it gives us a piercingly accurate look at our human nature… perhaps more accurate than we would like to admit.

Cynicism has an interesting origin. It came from a group of Greek philosophers whose purpose in life was the pursuit of virtue. They took their calling so seriously that the ancient cynics neglected personal hygiene and scorned the norms of society, often congregating in the streets to insult and condemn those who were pretentious, self-important, materialistic, or evil. One ancient cynic described himself in this way: “I am Diogenes the dog: I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy, and bite scoundrels.”

We live in a society that is so cynical that it has become a form of entertainment. Stephen Colbert’s deadpan comedic style won him four Emmys. The television shows South Park and The Family Guy continue on air despite their numerous offensive vulgarities because of the huge audience demand for their acidic wit and social commentary. Modern cynics have exchanged the pursuit of virtue and bad personal hygiene for something a little more practical: biting sarcasm, an unshakeable belief in human selfishness, and a tired frustration with our collective inability to change.

When I was in college, a friend of mine started a humanitarian organization that dealt with a lot of the darker issues of poverty and war that I mentioned earlier. One day we decided to show a documentary on the genocide in Sudan in the student campus center. We reserved the main television and when I arrived to plug in the tape, I was relieved to see that the only thing people were watching were a few clips on SportsCenter from the previous night’s games. But when I changed the channel and announced what we were showing, a student angrily got up and stormed off, saying, “Who cares about all this stuff? This stuff happens all the time!” He did not use the word “stuff.”

And he was right. This stuff happens all the time, and our media saturated society is sick of hearing about it. We are tired of counting bodies in Iraq. We are tired of CIA leaks and government scandals. We are tired of empty campaign promises and embezzled funds. We are tired of FEMA and mismanaged bureaucracy in the Gulf Coast. We are tired of hurricanes and earthquakes and falling stock market prices. We are tired of HIV, AIDSTB, and other acronymed diseases. We are tired of starving children and anorexic celebrities. We are tired of school shootings and inner city crime. We are tired of debating evolution in schools and abortion in the courts. We are tired of HMOs and insurance companies and a broken healthcare system. We are tired of divorces in our homes and grappling for grades in our schools. We are tired of griping bosses and sniping co-workers. We are tired of searching for someone who will like us for who we are and not who we pretend to be. We are tired of hypocrisy and judgment in the church from whom we had expected to receive grace. We are tired of the disappointments that happen all the time.

What option is there left for us? We aren’t revolutionaries; we know the world too well to expect it to change. We aren’t saints; we know ourselves too well to expect change there either. The only truth we are sure of is a humanity and an identity that is so disgustingly and predictably selfish that we might as well poke fun at it. We’ll do anything except hope for change, because hope requires vulnerability. Hope demands that we have an expectation that can be disappointed and unfulfilled. Hope means that we must be certain of something we cannot see, that we must trust in something we do not understand.

This is a frightening prospect for a cynic.

This is a frightening prospect for me.

I would much rather describe the world than have hope for it. There is nothing to fear from a description: nothing to be surprised or disappointed by. And so I will stand here and tell you that 18,000 children die each day from hunger, that you can’t trust anyone else or even yourself which means that you certainly should never trust a politician, that you can’t get something for nothing, that you can’t find a good church or even good people these days, that justice is a joke and peace is a sham, that everything is broken, and that nothing is sacred or perfect or even mildly decent.

As a cynic, I can tell you what the world is, but I cannot tell you what to do with it.

Again, I do not say these things to lessen the tragedy of what occurred in Connecticut. What I mean to say is that we are very good at overestimating our capacity for human empathy, kindness, and sorrow. We are very good at the self-pacification of conscience, at seeking out the path of least resistance required to change. We will pat each other on the back and say, “What a cruel world! What can be done in the face of so much evil?” We will congratulate ourselves on feeling sufficiently badly after expressing what we believe to be a fair and credible amount of grief. Once we have done this enough, have made significant acts of penance and efforts towards change, and are satisfied with their futility, we will move on and say, in the words of K. Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, “So it goes.”

It is tempting to offer consolation and imagine that we are better people, stronger people now. We desperately want something to hope for as we look forward to the cathartic ending that Hollywood promises: that the triumph of the human spirit or engineered systems or political goodwill shall redeem an otherwise pessimistic view of our human nature. But these proposals offer no answer as to why 18,000 children die daily from hunger, a malady with no bullet to blame or act of malice to fault.

There are two fears we are driven by, and what the cynic rightfully does is challenge our collective fear of truth. We lack the will — politically, socially, economically, personally — to pursue justice and to stare at the face of hard questions in order to ask why certain things are a certain way. Why does God permit evil? Why do we permit evil? What is the moral justification to use violence to restrain violence? Why are we so bent on self-preservation that we are so permissive towards injury to the other? Why do we cry over the slaughter of innocents in a school yet shrug in hardened indifference when shootings take place on my street corner here in the inner city? Or in Syria? Or when they starve to death in North Korea? Why, when the topic of abortion arises, do we roll our eyes and say, “Not this tired old argument again”?

What we fear most is the revelation that we are not as compassionate as we think. We do not believe children or life to be as sacred as we proclaim, and that is the truth we are most afraid of. As a physician, as a pediatrician, I see this every day. In the name of “quality of life”, we not only permit but encourage the abortion of children. Pregnancy for “those poor mothers, those teenage girls” is no longer something to be supported or even celebrated, but has deteriorated into becoming just another sexually transmitted disease… one that can be “treated”. But we will not do the hard thing, which is to speak out against the sexual flexibility of a culture that persistently prepares these young girls as prey in dress, action, and relational expectations. We will not speak against the industries that enslave our young men to pornography, to drug and alcohol addiction, to gang violence, to video games, or even to childhood obesity! We will not speak against the things that are unhealthy because we are not willing to sacrifice the freedom to love and indulge in our vices.

Even in writing this, I struggle with understanding my own voice and position. Am I being too generic? Am I being too conservatively minded? Am I being too “political”? Or am I being too silent? Too self-satisfied? Too smug and proud? As a cynic, I end in a place of paralysis because of my second fear: the fear of hope. But that is a discussion for a later time. For now, we look to Christ, in whom there is the absolution of all things. Kyrie eleison.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
 we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Romans 8

Part 1: On Cynicism