Feb 21, 2024
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5 mins read

Stamping Out Cynicism in the Trenches of Life

Stamping Out Cynicism in the Trenches of Life

Theodore Roosevelt during a visit to the Badlands of Dakota in 1885, after the death of his first wife. Photo by T W Ingersoll. (MPI/Getty Images)

By Annie Holmquist

I was recently struck by how cynical our society has become. This thought came as I encountered one critical comment after another on various websites I was visiting—it seemed like people found fault with anything and everything and felt the need to publicly express it.

It was discouraging and annoying—and judging from the responses of others, I wasn’t the only one who viewed these cynical people in such a negative light.

But then I began to reflect on my own life. Sure, I wasn’t the one making the negative, cynical comments online ... but was I making them in conversations with my family, friends, and co-workers? Unfortunately, I had to admit that such was the case.

Why are we such a cynical society? Why do we feel duty-bound to vocally criticize something that we don’t agree with, nit-picking at any small detail that’s a degree or two off track from our own standard of perfection? And if cynicism so pervades today’s society, what will it be like 10 or 20 years down the road when today’s children have grown up saturated in said cynicism?

While I was pondering questions such as these, I stumbled—perhaps providentially—on a chunk of text from Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech. In reading it, I realized that my concerns about society’s—and my own—cynical nature were valid and certainly something to guard against if we wish to be strong individuals.

Both Roosevelt’s observations and a look at our own society suggest several reasons why cynicism increasingly rules the day.

‘Critical’ Thinking

The first is our education system, which has advanced the concept of “critical thinking” for years. Although supposedly a technique through which to objectively analyze and weigh an idea, modern critical thinking has turned into more of a mode of deconstruction, a way to tear down rather than build up profound thoughts and connections.

Roosevelt describes the “man of learning” and “the man of lettered leisure” as the individuals most likely to fall prey to the temptation of cynicism. But although cynicism and a critical spirit feed the pride of intellect and give the illusion of individual achievement, in the end, they serve only as a bait and switch, leaving weakness instead of strength:

“A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority, but of weakness.”

Overly Comfortable

The second reason cynicism is so present in our society is that we are surrounded by wealth, both in information and luxury. Knowledge is easy to obtain, and the personal comfort afforded us through technology enables us to turn into armchair experts unwilling to engage with society face-to-face.

Roosevelt didn’t know about Google or smartphones, but he did recognize that a little human connection—an interaction with the “little people” or the “John Does” of the world—goes a long way to thwart the cynicism that is so detrimental to a republic governed by its citizens.

“Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows.”

In other words, if we want to avoid cynicism, we must come out of whatever closet of isolation we’ve put ourselves in and get busy living life alongside others, learning from and listening to those in the trenches of America.

Lack of Character

A third reason cynicism seems to rule the day is that our society possesses a general lack of character. Families are often broken, churches often preach a watered-down message, and schools have seemingly substituted principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion for those that once advanced a strong work ethic and fact-based moral code.

Such a lack of character inhibits our ability to face our flaws and seek to remedy them. Thus, we fall into cynicism, in which we pull down “the achievements of others” to better hide the weaknesses in our own lives that we don’t want to bother improving.

That cynicism will creep into our lives at some point in time is almost inevitable. As such, we need to guard against it, and the best way to do that is to actively pursue an attitude of humility, putting our alleged superiority aside and joining in community with others. Roosevelt would likely describe such an action as “jumping into the arena”:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Want to avoid the fate of the cynic? Then get into the trenches of real life. Oddly enough, the sweat, blood, and striving of such a position will give you a much rosier hue through which to see the world and its inhabitants.