I thought I was cynical, until I read the following chart courtesy of etymonline.com:
As the table indicates, for me to be a cynic I must be exposing moral nakedness to the respectable for the sake of my own self-justification.
This is not what I thought cynicism was. It’s not what I do.
What I do is much more like privately expressing pessimism in the face of adversity for the sake of my own relief: sardonicism.
A cynic is someone who justifies their own actions by exposing the moral “nakedness” or hypocrisy of others. Like a drug addict who argues that “we’re all addicted to something”, or a thief who argues that “the rich cheat on their taxes”.
Sardonicism is instead like bitter laughter during hard times. Pessimism – expecting the worst – becomes a defense against adverse events.
Are you truly cynical, or sardonic? The two are not mutually exclusive – I can use sardonic pessimism to cynically justify my actions, and use cynicism to justify being pessimistic. None of this is very positive, grounded as it is in defensive and negative perspectives of life. Like any defense, it may well be our least-bad response to danger and adversity, but it’s not good to live for long in a defensive state.
A response to adversity ought, ideally, to free us from adversity. Once we are free we can abandon the response. If we never abandon the response, it is either because we are unable to free ourselves – suggesting the response was futile – or because we anticipate recurrences – suggesting the response is only barely sufficient.
Unpacking sardonicism further: I use my expectation of the worst to provide relief when bad things happen. Adversity is easier to deal with when it falls short of one’s worst expectations. “Is that how hard you can hit me? I’m kinda disappointed.”
But pessimism is a self-inflicted injury designed to dull your sensitivity to disappointment, hurt, grief, and longing. Expecting the worst might limit your disappointment, but it also leaves you mired in a kind of desolation where nothing really good can happen. “Good” is not simply the absence of evil.
Time and energy devoted to pessimism could be better spent cultivating that which our pessimism seeks to defend: the full integrity of our own selves. Yet as a defense, pessimism doesn’t even try to avoid life’s blows, merely to soften them. Like bracing for impact, it hopes merely to not be taken by surprise. Such a strategy makes sense only if we already believe that the evils in life are unavoidable, that we will be surprised unless we exert the constant vigilance of a pessimistic mind. Pessimism is an attempt to take control of a hostile and adverse environment by adjusting one’s expectations to it. It treats fear – the anticipation of evils – as one of life’s indelible characteristics.
That the world is full of evils is hard to deny. That these evils sometimes take us by surprise is also evident. To adopt pessimism in an attempt to at least forestall surprise makes sense, but is ultimately a terrible way to live. I didn’t understand this when I was younger, but time has exhausted my patience with pessimism. Avoiding sorrow is not the same as pursuing happiness, and rejecting the pursuit of happiness for fear of increasing the risk of sorrow shows an incomplete understanding of happiness and sorrow, good and evil, in the first place.
I have arrived at a position in life where the greatest obstacle to my own happiness lies in my efforts to avoid suffering and sorrow. More importantly, the need for positive direction, for creativity, and an inspiring purpose demands that I put aside pessimism and attend, for once, to the makings of a pleased and happy frame of mind.