“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.” —Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
Becoming a cynic was not on my five-year plan after I graduated from college. I excitedly accepted a seminary internship at a large, established church, grateful for a job and help with tuition costs. I had grand visions of what the Church should and could be. I had ideas about how we could improve, grow, and change. Again and again, though, I had encounters with people that made me feel like I had been living in a fantasyland. My dreams looked more like a fairy tale and real life frustrated and angered me. My idealistic expectations careened into a church in transition, with some big questions it needed to answer. I lost my idealism and replaced it with sarcasm and cynicism, insulating myself from the pain of unmet expectations.
One of our greatest traits as a generation is our idealism about the world and our ability to change it. That belief is often as large as the obstacles we work to overcome. However, many of you could tell a story like mine where you realized you were naïve. In place of idealism, we often resort to cynicism as a coping mechanism.
We might think cynicism protects us from being wounded again. Instead, cynicism prevents us from making a difference in the world. Cynics do not contribute to the world. Think of people whose lives and messages have changed the world. Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa, Dr. King, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney. None of them were cynical. They passionately believed in their message and gave their lives to seeing their dreams come to life.
How do we reject cynicism and embrace hope? The following three transitions may seem simple, but they are not easy. They begin helping us to stop allowing our past pain to determine the limits of our future.
- Process the pain
Wounding is an unavoidable piece of life. The question is not “Will you be wounded?” but rather “What will you do with your wound?” If you do not process the pain, you will pass it on to others. Processing involves how you relate to God, who longs to meet you in your pain. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Processing can also involve getting help. One of the best decisions you could make in your twenties is processing your painful experiences with a counselor who can help you unpack the damage and identify healthy coping mechanisms.
Processing can ultimately lead to forgiveness. While forgiveness is never easy, God’s grace can enable us to let go of the retributive desires that often rise in our hearts.
- Filter your inputs
The voices we listen to shape our future. Our transition from cynicism to hope depends on whose voices we value and empower. I discovered this truth while reading voices that critiqued the modern church. As I struggled to process the pain I experienced there myself, my reading only served to exacerbate the pain.
Paul called the Philippian church to be intentional about what occupied their minds when he wrote, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
As I battled cynicism, I did not want to ignore the brokenness experienced by others nor by me. But I needed to rethink my relationship to these voices if I was going to rediscover a healthy existence for myself.
Initially, I cut off some voices entirely. Over time, I began filtering who I read and the purposes for which I read them. I read some for critique and read others for prescription. Eventually, my reading found a balance that helped me to become thoughtful and healthy.
- Get to work
Author Jennie Allen tweeted, “Somebody asked me recently—how do you overcome cynicism? My response—start building things. Then there’s no energy to tear down.”
As I processed through my experience with cynicism, I realized the opportunities I had to serve saved me. I watched friends battle cynics, in part because they lacked an opportunity to get the focus off them and their pain and onto someone else’s needs. When we are focused on doing good for others, we can shift gears from the critical and introspective to an outward, creative focus.
During an episode of The West Wing, President-elect Matt Santos called out a recruit for a rebuttal of his job offer, implying that her “outside” role as a lobbyist had made it easy for her to criticize others. Santos said, “It is easier to throw rocks at a house than it is to build one.” Personally, I have wasted too much time “throwing rocks.” I am grateful to say I moved from cynicism and toward hope as I dropped my rocks and picked up a hammer.
In the Old Testament, Nehemiah encountered resistance as he neared the completion of the Jerusalem Wall. Some detractors wrote him a letter urging him to come down from the wall and meet them. I love his response: “I sent messengers to them with this reply, ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?’”
Nehemiah gave himself to this task and nothing would distract him. As Jennie said, he “did not have time” for anything but the work he had given his hands to complete.
The loss of idealism seems inevitable as we grow older. The difference in who we will become is shaped by our response. Some will emerge from a cynical season with a renewed sense of hope, developing resiliency. Those who remain stuck in the quagmire of cynicism will grow weaker in Hemingway’s “broken places.”
Our culture faces incredible challenges today. The world needs us to be driven by a belief in change and hope in possibilities. If I could speak to the seminary student who was discovering an imperfect church with big challenges, difficult choices, and rocky transitions, I would say three words:
Relentlessly reject cynicism.