“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” ― George Carlin
“Day by day, I’m leaning into it, being reignited by a personal revival. And by the grace of God, I just might see a full recovery from cynicism after all.” –Nish Weiseth, Speak: How Your Story Can Change the World. We come weeping through the birth canal full of wonder, and grow into that wonder with tactile experience–the feel of the velvet blanky, the taste of the summer-ripe strawberry, the slimy lick of the puppy’s tongue. We grow, also, into the belief of taught ideals. “Jesus was a good man, a God-man,” they say, and so we believe. “The church is your family,” they say, and so we believe.
The experiences and ideals of our youth shape us. And though some things seem ever-true–the sweetness of the summer-ripe strawberry, for instance–other things seem to lose their luster. This, I think, is how cynics are born.
Allow me to walk you through the steps of cynicism.
1. Begin With a Grand Ideal
I bought the most youthful expression of Christianity, one accompanied by Kool-Aid, edible Goldfish, and the idealistic felt-board Jesus. Jesus gave me loaves and fishes (Goldfishes to be exact), and came to heal me of every disease. Jesus was my friend.
2. Learn Every Nuance of the Ideal
Idealistic Jesus was the perfect God-man, one who healed the sick, fed the poor, and advocated for the downtrodden. He was not so much above-the-fray as below it, he working up from society’s bottom. Friend of sinners, they called him. In fact, his friendship was so fierce that he died on the cross, rose again, and sent his Holy Spirit to indwell me.
Ah, the indwelling.
It is the indwelling that made it possible for me to be just like Jesus himself. They told me this with one caveat–you can be like Jesus if your belief is fierce enough.
3. Compare the Ideal to the Teachers of the Ideal
Jesus, poor and itinerant, was propped up by the teachers, who seemed to be less poor and less itinerant. In fact, they skewed the ideal, lived lives that proclaimed Security-Jesus, the Jesus that gave eternal life and a decent shot at an early retirement. He died to make them less poor and less itinerant, it seemed.
A preacher came to me, said (at least ’round about), “one day you’ll understand how important this building campaign is to Jesus. If we preach safe messages to secure donations, he’ll understand.”
4. Embrace the New Ideal or Become a Cynic
When the ideal was co-opted by a wholly different message (i.e., “Jesus friend of the poor,” become “Jesus the master mega-church builder”) I was left with two options. First, I could embrace the new ideal regardless of all internal angst and discomfort. Alternatively, I could choose to become cynical of the former ideal.
See how impossible a thing it is to actually be like Jesus, I said.
5. Hate the Ideal
When I realized the impossibility of Idealistic Jesus, I began to see hypocrisy everywhere–the faith-healer who was dying of cancer; the celibate priest who piddled around; the minister who refused to marry the woman impregnated out of wedlock. These things were askew with the espoused ideal, and so, in a sort of transference, I associated hypocrisy with an ideal that seemed a lie. And this is where the hate set in.
Hypocrite hating is an easy thing when I adopted the role of victim.
6. The Way Out
The way out is simple, but it’s not easy. The ideal is real–Jesus friend of sinners; Jesus the poor; Jesus the itinerant; Jesus working up from the bottom. I heard this story fresh, and believed. Then I set to looking less at the hypocrites and more to the true ideal carriers. I looked to the believers struggling for faith in the far east, or the ones being persecuted for the ideal in the Middle East. I looked more to the factory worker, or the businessman choosing morning prayers at his office. I chose to look at the housewife who instilled small virtues in her pre-schoolers.
I chose, too, to see the ideal in creation, in the coming spring and the turning fall. I found the ideal again in the taste of the summer-ripe strawberry. I believed the creative, age-old ideal of the genesis of things.
–eyes that look with wonder on the ideal and bounce from the hypocritical co-optors.
The details of my story would take too many words to write here. These are the sketches. But the truth is, my process does not exist in a vacuum. In fact, others have written better words about the topic. This being so, might I suggest a book?
Speak:How Your Story Can Change the World. In Speak, Nish devotes a chapter to her fall into cynicism, and how she found the way out. She writes:
“I haven’t always loved the church. In fact, I hated it for a good while. I know ‘hate’ sounds harsh, but when your heart gets racked by bitterness, cynicism, and anger, ‘hate’ is probably the best word for how it feels.”
If the story stopped there, it’d be tragic. But it doesn’t.
Nish pulled out of church cynicism with the help of stories from a few friends, and she’s written parts of this story in Speak. It’s poignant, and evidences how the stories of friends, how the power of a timely word can move one from the cynicism that kills into the fresh re-birth of the ideal.
But Speak isn’t just a story of rebirth; it’s a book about the power of stories, how stories can change things. Nish writes from personal experience, yes, but she also delves into the stories of others, offers proof that there is power in the collection of our experiences. She shares how the power of these collective experiences change individual lives, how those individual lives change societies, and how those changed societies change the world.
It is true: stories change things. No one knows that better than Nish. So today, as you ponder your own story, perhaps your own shedding of cynical skin, would you consider picking up a copy of Speak? You’ll be glad you did.
(For more on Speak, visit Preston Yancey’s site. He makes a startling confession: “I wish I wrote you this book.”)
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