Cynicism vs. Hope

Call Them by Their True Name

“Call Them by Their True Name” by Rebecca Solnit

Cynics.  We’ve all encountered them.  They make pronouncements with great certainty and take pride in not appearing foolish. Those who disagree with them are instantly branded, in the eyes of the cynic, as naïve.

Thankfully, there are ways to combat cynicism. Over the holidays I finished reading author Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book, Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays)Solnit includes an essay—Naive Cynicism—that flips the idea of cynicism and naivete on its head.

“Naïve cynics shoot down possibilities, including the possibility of exploring the full complexity of any situation. They take aim at the less cynical, so that cynicism becomes a defensive posture and an avoidance of dissent. They recruit through brutality. If you set purity and perfection as your goals, you have an almost foolproof system according to which everything will necessarily fall short. . . . Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards.  They are uncomfortable with victories, because victories are almost always temporary, incomplete, and compromised.”

Change and progress require hard work, and cynics often want to avoid the responsibility of that work. They have a “relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world which generally offers neither.”  Change and progress also require hope, and as I’ve written before, “hope demands things that despair does not.” Hope is risky. But hope is also in love with success.

When you hear news that affects you, what is your first reaction? Does your mind move to cynical inevitabilities, or to hopeful possibilities?  Do you act upon “bad data and worse analysis” to reach your conclusion? As Solnit says in her book The Faraway Nearby, “Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.”  Life isn’t easy, but as Stephen Covey has written, we have the ability and freedom as humans to respond. “External forces act as stimuli that we respond to. Between the stimulus and the response is your greatest power — you have the freedom to choose your response.”

“It is the nature of reactive people to absolve themselves of responsibility,” says Covey.  However, “proactive people work on the things they can do something about.” In the same vein Robert Glazer speaks of improving our emotional capacity. “Emotional capacity relates to how we react to challenging situations and people as well as the quality of our relationships, which can either increase our energy or deplete it. The process of improving emotional capacity is challenging. It requires learning to actively manage your feelings and accepting a certain amount of uncertainty and unpredictability from both individuals and circumstances.”

Nats Rainbow

Nothing says hope better than a rainbow at a baseball stadium

In times of uncertainty or difficulty, think about your response and consider choosing the proactive option of learning. Of possibilities. Of hope.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Circle of Concern/Circle of Influence

Every Saturday morning we’re in town, my wife and I do two things without fail:  we buy our weekly groceries at the local farmers market, and then we spend an hour at the French pastry shop Tout de Sweet drinking coffee, eating scones, and talking.  I call it my Candice time, and it is the one extended period during the week we have to focus on the week ahead and—more importantly—on bigger issues that are on our minds.  When it comes to Saturday mornings, empty nesting has its privileges.*

This past Saturday as we discussed the impact of stress on our lives, Candice asked me what was on mind.  I realized (with her help) that I had begun to focus on things I couldn’t control.  Reflecting later on that conversation took me back to a book I first read in the early 1990s, Stephen R. Covey’s classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  “Be Proactive” is the very first habit, and early in the book Covey notes that we each have a wide range of concerns—“our health, our children, problems at work, the national debt, nuclear war.” He suggests we separate those from things in which we have no particular mental or emotional involvement by creating a “Circle of Concern.”

“As we look at those things within our Circle of Concern, it becomes apparent that there are some things over which we have no real control and others that we can do something about.  We could identify those concerns in the latter group by circumscribing them within a smaller Circle of Influence.  By determining which of these two circles is the focus of most of our time and energy, we can discover much about the degree of our proactivity.  Proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence.  They work on things they can do something about.”

Covey writes that those who focus on things they can influence radiate positive energy, causing their Circle of Influence to increase.  Reactive people, however, focus on things they cannot control or influence with results that include blaming and accusing attitudes, reactive language, and increased feelings of victimization.

Circles of Concern and Influence

Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence (credit: Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing)

There are so many things that concern us on a daily basis, and it differs for everyone.  I realized that the first thing I could influence was where my focus was trained.  It was helpful advice more than 20 years ago, and I’m glad it came up again during this week’s Candice time.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

* I realize that with Andrew living at home while he builds experience and saves money for conservatory we aren’t “technically” empty nesters.  But having a 24-year-old who manages his own schedule and helps out with all types of chores around the house is even better than empty nesting…and we don’t have any more early Saturday morning swim team meets!