As we grow older and through the ups and downs, we can either let life make us better or let it make us bitter. Are you becoming a cynical person?
I would have to say this time in my life is one of the most up and down times I’ve been through. There really have been a lot of great things happening – so many new opportunities, so many great people in my life, fulfilling relationships and new ventures. It’s also been a time with a lot of other things happening around all that, quite a number of additional life pressures, high stress situations, and it’s definitely been one of those trying times in general.
It got me thinking about how easy it is to go through the hard times in life and allow them to shape our entire future for the worst. Instead of becoming better through our experiences, we can so easily dip and become bitter, angry, emotionally frustrated people.
The greatest issue is our ability to experience a complete loss of joy. Where once we may have been thrilled and forward looking in our lives, we can become twisted by the past and allow a single moment (or a number of moments) to define who we are.
And so I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to look at how to avoid becoming a cynical person. I’ve mainly been thinking about this as a caution to myself, and I thought it would be worth sharing. We all know people who have allowed life to become a completely joyless procession, and have altogether halted in their aspiration or enjoyment. How do we avoid becoming like that?
#1: It all starts with pain
I used an image above from the timeless tale of Ebenezer Scrooge. I don’t think there’s a Christmas of anyone’s year that goes by where the classic tale by Charles Dickens isn’t revisited in one form or another. My favourite retelling includes Gonzo.
But it’s a story that’s repeated so often due to its human relatability. A young, enterprising business man, Scrooge is reaching success upon success in life, until one moment in his life where he has his heart completely broken. From that moment of heartbreak, largely caused by his relationship with one person, he becomes a withdrawn, self centred man, who cares nothing for the suffering or the situations of others, until he once again gets to experience the light of life through the perspectives of the spirits who visit him.
Pain has a profound effect in our lives. Pain reduces our IQ, and causes us to make decisions with less than our full mind. When we badly graze our knee, our whole body and perspective curls around the wound – much like what happens when we experience pain in other areas of our lives. All decisions become about protecting the area that’s been wounded.
I wonder what the pain is in your life? What moment utterly changed you, and was the beginning of becoming a cynical person? Perhaps it’s a number of decisions that you made, or that you keep making in present tense. I think removing our cynicism starts with correctly identifying and addressing its source.
#2: Where we dwell
Chris Hemsworth recently released a program called Centr, whereby he’s opened up and made his personal training regiments and meal plans available to the public. We’ve been trying the workouts and all the great healthy meal plans for a while now, and it’s been really great. Another aspect of the program, as is common in many fitness and wellness plans, centres around meditation and mindfulness. It is well known the benefits of calming your mind and taking control of your thoughts.
The Jewish people define meditation as what you repeat to yourself. If you watch any of the Rabbis at the Wailing Wall, you’ll see this in practice – certain prayers and statements repeated over and over out loud, completely given to focusing on the statements and Scriptures they have chosen to dwell on, until it finally sticks and becomes cemented in their hearts and mind.
What do you dwell on? What do you repeat to yourself? Is it wholesome? Or is it destructive? Sometimes we do ourselves a real disservice by going around and around the same thoughts, camping at the base of a mountain of disappointment and discouragement. And then we wonder why it’s so hard to move forward from that place. We have to make a decision to pack up the tent and move forward with our lives.
#3: When our automatic thoughts tend towards negativity
As someone who has struggled personally with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks, I can really relate to people who feel like they just can’t help it but be negative or disappointed. I think something that was really enlightening to me was the concept of neural pathways, which are physical electrical paths that get carved out in your brain when a new decision is made. After a new decision has been made and a new pathway has been formed, the brain will tend the pathways that have already been created before considering alternative options. A new decision or a change of mind involves the carving of a new path physically in your brain before it becomes easier for your brain to keep choosing the new option. We’re still making choices – it just doesn’t feel like it.
One time in a time of really bad, repeated panic attacks, my counsellor at the time offered a freeing perspective. He said, “Matt, the reason you’re having these attacks is because you believe that you are trapped with no way out. Are you actually trapped? Who is making you do those things?”. It was a real moment of healing when I realized that I was not as trapped as I had allowed myself to repeatedly choose to think, and that I had other options available. It didn’t change overnight, but there was my new pathway to form by making new choices over the automatic thoughts that had developed. Eventually, this new pathway became the default, and the negative and destructive pathways weren’t being automatically selected anymore.
Can you relate to me? If you can, I hope you will always be able to relate to my healing. You’re not as trapped as you feel like you are, and you do still have the ability to choose the truth of the good in your life.
#4: You have so much to look forward to
Friend, you have so much ahead of you. Negativity builds a stronghold over our heart and tries to stop us from seeing or believing that. We think our best days are behind us, and so we start becoming a cynical person with our disposition and focus aimed behind us.
Bitterness and resentment build and become our default behaviour when we’ve lost our view of a bright future. The Proverbs tell us that hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life.
So you’ve had to bury one of your dreams before. Physically, emotionally, mentally, whatever it may be. You’ve had to say goodbye to a future that can no longer happen. You went through a traumatic experience and suffered great loss.
But what about the other things that could still happen? What about the good things that could still be ahead of you? We’ll never see the good things while we keep our negative glasses on. In fact, we can ruin the potential for good things in our life by always filtering them through negativity and doubt.
To this end, I love this quote from RC Sproul:
Hope is called the anchor of the soul because it gives stability to… life. But hope is not simply a ‘wish’ (I wish that such-and-such would take place); rather, it is that which latches on to the certainty of the promises of the future that God has madeRC Spoul
When you feel cynicism and negativity developed and dominating your life, cling to the promises of good made before you were even born. You were meant for more, and if you keep a healthy attitude, you’ll get there.
#5: Replacing a complaining spirit with a grateful one
I have quite a few friends in the caring industry (aged care workers, nurses, doctors etc.) and was introduced a few years ago to the concept of compassion fatigue. This is quite common in these sorts of professions where care is continually offered and given, with the caregiver eventually reaching a place of burnout. I read that one of the largest contributors to this condition is the negativity, complaining, or lack of gratitude being thrown at the person who is attempting to help. Our complaining and negativity can have a damaging effect not just on ourselves, but on the people around us.
I read this rather profound example of how a chronic complainer sees life.
Optimists see: A glass half full.Pessimists see: A glass half empty.
Chronic complainers see: A glass that is slightly chipped holding water that isn’t cold enough, probably because it’s tap water when I asked for bottled water and wait, there’s a smudge on the rim, too, which means the glass wasn’t cleaned properly and now I’ll probably end up with some kind of virus. Why do these things always happen to me?!
You know, I’ve seen in my own life times where I can feel myself going there. When work is hard and relationships get challenging and health things go up and down and life just goes for it, it can be so easy to become that last person, to adopt a victim mentality, to stay obsessed with a defeatist mindset.
But as soon as I allow my heart and then my mouth to go there, it just gets worse. You can’t worry and add a single hour to your life. It’s not from a place of wisdom that we become dominated by all the things that are going wrong at the expense of all the things that are going right.
In Becoming a People Person, John Maxwell says “If you don’t have peace, it isn’t because someone took it from you; you gave it away. You cannot always control what happens to you, but you can control what happens in you”. We have a choice – we can either continually complain about life, or we can have a spirit of gratitude. I love this quote from theologian Karl Barth I read a few years ago for an assignment: “Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth”.
#6: Eyes of peace
As a husband, there’s a piece of Scripture that drives almost every decision I make, that I hold as a standard in everything I do. From the Song of Solomon, the wife of the king says:
Then I became in his eyes as one who finds peace.
I think the concept of having eyes of peace is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful, and such a high standard to try to live up to. But what a rich reward when we do. I absolutely love that this woman found freedom and peace in the sight of her husband, and I would love that to be true of me in how I live my life.
And I think when we start to become cynical, or we’re already there, we start to see others and even ourselves through eyes of hostility and contempt. Have you ever tried having a conversation with someone who sees you through eyes of contempt? It’s impossible. You can never measure up. Nothing they say registers correctly and it’s always put through a filter of doubt and negativity.
But when you see others through eyes of peace? Then people can do like what this woman did, and find great rest in our eyes. Are people freed when your perspective comes along? Granted, we can’t always get through to people, and some people have already made up their mind about how they’re going to be. But let that never stop us from seeing people through peace. And when you’re like that, watch how many people line up to try to talk to you. No one wants to hang out for a long period of time with Negative Nancy (sorry if your name is Nancy, it’s just an expression), but everyone wants to be the friend of the person with eyes of peace.
#7: Allowing joy to be our strength
The Hebrews finished an absolutely staggering task of rebuilding the long distraught Temple of Solomon. Following this construction, they were told that it wouldn’t be statutes that would be their strength. It wouldn’t be discipline. No, their strength would be found in joy.
I wonder what you think of joy? If this concept has become foreign or even one that causes you anger or discomfort, cynicism has likely already taken root in your heart.
Joy simply means my bad circumstances aren’t greater than the good news in my life. It means the damning views and cursing words of others aren’t more powerful than the great things that have been spoken about me. My troubled past isn’t greater than my brilliant future. That’s joy.
Guard your joy. Protect it with your greatest effort. Without it, you lose strength, and descend down the spiral of becoming bitter and senile.
One of my old pastors used to say that unforgiveness was like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. And while forgiveness can be ridiculously difficult, it’s necessary in order to allow your heart to move on.
What is forgiveness anyway? It’s simply releasing someone from their actions and future actions. It can come at great personal cost and doesn’t mean what happened was okay. It means you are released from what you will do, and you are released from what you won’t. That’s why you can forgive without an apology, because you are releasing them of their need to even ask.
Now, forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. Forgiveness only takes one person – reconciliation takes two. It doesn’t mean we allow abusers to get off the hook, it doesn’t mean we continually put ourselves in unsafe situations, it doesn’t mean we’ve instantly fixed the damage that has been done or the flow on consequences of people’s actions. But what it does mean is that within our own hearts, they have been released and we’re deciding not to hold on to what they’ve done any more. We’re going to let it go. It is definitely the platform for reconciliation, but it’s finding freedom without it.
Who do you need to release in your heart today? Is it an ex? A husband or wife? Is it a friend, a coworker, an important figure in your life, an old friend, a group of people? Do you need to forgive yourself? Or would you rather hold your grudges and eventually die alone of a broken and bitter heart? You’ve been forgiven so much, will you return the favour?
Becoming a cynical person doesn’t occur overnight, but gradually, over time, after repeated disappointments and setbacks, after thoughts we continually dwell on. But I think it’s up to all of us to own our own heart attitude.
Do you feel yourself becoming more cynical? Can you see in your own life maybe where you have allowed negativity to dominate your mind? I know in my own life I have had, do have, and will continue to have reasons to become a cynical person, to fail to see a positive future, to obsess over the bad things in life. I hope you’ll join me in moving beyond cynicism and living a long life with a positive and life giving attitude, for our own sake, and the sake of those around us.
How about you? How do you avoid becoming a cynical person?