On Cynicism [Part 1]

[Orig­i­nally written for a Good Fri­day reflec­tion in 2007, unknow­ingly done one week before the Vir­ginia Tech shoot­ing.  It remains upsettingly current.  It is also the first of a two part series; don’t worry, the title of the second one is “On Hope.”]

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 and pre­ventable), 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 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, AIDS, TB, 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.


All that has changed in the past six years since writing those words is that we are at even greater risk of cynicism.  A technologically-powered explosion of information has given us near-infinite access to the range and dynamism of human nature, and what we find most troubling is how toxic and yet accessible human nature can truly be.  In our attempts to cope, we either saturate and displace those sentiments with catharsis (videos of cats come to mind), or we over­es­ti­mat­e our capac­ity for human empa­thy, kind­ness, and sor­row.

How can we begin to comprehend the collective cruelty of humanity without resorting to the blunting despair of cynicism?  We can only do so through Good Friday, that moment in time in which the sheer revulsion, mortification, and magnitude of the human condition is understood in the unjust suffering of a single man, Jesus Christ.  By this I mean we feel the weight of our guilt in the heft of his cross.  We feel the sting of our mockery in his crown of thorns.  We feel our dismembering violence in the piercing of his hands and side.  In one man, we finally have a gruesome spectacle that does justice to the portrayal of the injustice in our world.

At the foot of the cross, all our deep transgressions find their full expression.

Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.

Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give my self away
’Tis all that I can do.

– Isaac Watts

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David graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and received his medical degree from Rutgers - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with a Masters in Public Health concentrated in health systems and policy. He completed a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. He continues to work in Delaware as a dual Med-Peds hospitalist. Faith-wise, he is decid­edly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disney’s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.

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