Some Thoughts on Cynicism From My Morning Walk

I tried to think of a working definition for “cynicism” as I see it. I came up with this:

Apathetic fatalism brought about by persistent doubt in the sincerity of others and in the ability to change one’s circumstances.

The hemorrhoidal maxim “It is what it is” has become a mantra for bending over to cynicism. What began as shorthand for “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” has been watered down to a shorthand for “It might be hard to change this, so I’m not going to try.”

Case in point: Recently, my wife and I dropped $180, a massive splurge for us, on tickets to see Pixies and Cat Power at the Hollywood Bowl. During Cat’s set, a group of dipshits in the seats behind us yakked loudly and heckled her. When I asked the lead dipshit to move out of the seating area if he wanted to talk because I had paid a lot of money to listen to someone who wasn’t him, his response was, “Hey man, it is what it is.” Translation: “Hey man, it would be hard to move or to not talk or to be courteous to those around me, so I’m not going to try, and you shouldn’t try to change that.”

Okay, it wasn’t recently. It was two years ago, and I’m still mad about it.

Using Uber Supports the Things You Hate

Sure, using Uber undermines public safety, the rule of law, and the very foundation of our labor market. But if you don’t value any of those things enough to contemplate taking the bus to Gelson’s, consider that supporting Uber means supporting three other things that most of us, my fellow progressives in particular, hate rill rill bad:

  1. Endangering women
  2. Compromising our personal data
  3. Exploiting the poor and working class.

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Snow Job: The Terrible Ethics of Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer

Rankin/Bass’s classic Christmas TV special Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer airs for the fifty-second time tonight on CBS. That means it’s also time for the thirteenth annual posting of this essay, possibly the most popular thing I’ve ever written. It originally appeared December 4, 2004 on my defunct ethics site TheDo-Gooder.com.

Hermey and RudolphWednesday night marked the fortieth annual broadcast of the “classic” holiday television show, Rankin/Bass Production’s Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I tuned in for probably the twenty-fifth time (but the first in many years) expecting to find a rudimentary moral lesson tucked amongst all the holly-jolliness and evil-looking puppets. Instead I had the frightening realization that, for forty years, RtR-NR has been cramming several sleighloads of bad ethics down our chimneys. In this holiday nightmare, nearly every character demonstrates a distinct lack of moral integrity bordering on turpitude, and none other than Santa himself comes away as the worst of the bunch. Here’s an ethical play-by-play.

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Climb Out of the Hell Well, pt. 2 – Start Hoping

Sunrise by Roy Lichtenstein, 1965
Sunrise by Roy Lichtenstein, 1965

In part one of this essay I described the Hell Well as the pit of despondency we dig ourselves into through worry. Since worry and despondency are seemingly undying, or at least perpetually renewable, we need a tool against them that’s just as strong. That tool is hope.

Hope springs eternal. Yeah, whatever, put it on a poster with a baby sloth and hang it in the church basement. Any of us with even the tiniest ember of cynicism still glowing from thousands of hours of listening to Pavement records want to scrape that lavender-scented pap to the toilet and flush twice. Which is why we need to get over ourselves and accept the fact that hope is eternal. The powerful conviction that things can always improve 1Not the frail delusion that things will always improve. will not die unless you let it. No facts can invalidate it; no reality can extinguish it. Hope’s immutability is what makes it such a ferocious weapon against despondency. “Hope is an ax,” wrote Rebecca Solnit, and it is–an indestructible ax. An adamantium skull cleaver hewing bloody stumps from despair.

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1. Not the frail delusion that things will always improve.

Climb Out of the Hell Well, pt. 1 — Stop Worrying

Over Water II by Chuck Olson
Over Water II by Chuck Olson

In the wake of the election, some of my friends are stuck down a Hell Well. They’ve used their worry and fear for America’s future to dig themselves into a dark pit of despair, some of them so deep that the only light they see comes from the demonic flames further down. I recognize it because I spent most of my life been down a Hell Well.

Thanks to an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, I spent decades in fear of one horrifying future or another, or the fear of their being no future at all. Only in the last six of my 42 years–a tiny 14% of my life–have I crawled out for any significant period of time. That was only after my life became so unbearable that I hit the emotional and psychological bottom of the Hell Well.

I’d dug myself down with my worry, and I’d stay down there for years because I’d been futilely trying to worry myself out. It doesn’t work. The tools you use to dig can’t be used to climb. I had to forge myself new ones. And while not everyone who’s dug themselves into a Hell Well has an anxiety disorder, we can all use the same tools to climb out.

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Sing Along For Power

I put together this playlist of some of my favorite sing-along songs. Most of them are anthems. Some could be called protest songs. A few of them are just bits of joy. But listening and shouting along to any of them is an act of power.

I experienced it this morning when, clawing my way out of despair, I put on my headphones and walked outside. Something made me search Spotify for A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario?” In minutes I was walking faster, roaring along to “Rowr! Rowr! Like a dungeon dragon.” Then playing it again. “Here we go yo! Here we go yo!” Then before it could end finding “Sabotage,” shouting now, “I can’t stand it!” Then queuing new songs reflexively before I’d be left in silence. Racing, screaming the choruses, I didn’t realize what I was doing to myself until, four tracks in, surprising feelings overcame me: hope, strength, energy, determination, confidence. In another word: power.

So I made a playlist to share that power. Listening to music as a source of empowerment seems like a bromide, but it’s not. It’s an operative technique to change your mental state and thereby move you to constructive action.

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