Cynicism is something we all know about. Today it’s synonymous with pessimism, bitterness, and distrust. It is not a pleasant frame of mind to be in. And it happens, from time to time, that one small encounter can change the way we see things all day. If you find yourself stuck feeling cynical, it’s really tiring. It can become a burden to look for the good in people, and what you do doesn’t seem to matter so much, because hey – we are all selfish anyway. That’s the kind of mentality we can try to dispel, or at least diminish. Today we’re going way back to ancient Greece, for a little help from our friends, the Cynic philosophers. They had a much different understanding of cynicism than we do, one that was a bit more constructive, and it can still help us today.
The Cynic philosophers’ goal was to show people that independence and self-control were more fulfilling than anything else. They lectured the public about morally good character and taking responsibility for one’s own actions. They also chose to live on the streets to demonstrate simplicity. These acts encouraged people to think about how they could live more deliberate lives. In some cases, people even joined the Cynics in the streets during their time off from work. In the end, their aim was not to destroy society, but inspire its people to create a better one.
The Cynics were named after the Greek word meaning “dog,” which paints a perfect picture of their lives. Theirs was a movement that poked holes in Greek society for being decadent, by rejecting everything from living indoors on down. One famous Cynic, Diogenes, lived in a barrel with his pet dogs, and is said to have been pretty happy for it.
Okay, we’re back from the past. Without abandoning all worldly possessions to go live in a barrel, we can still learn a lot from this brief time travel episode.
We can see that cynicism used to have two parts to it. One was looking in and the other looked out. Today the word is not so constructive on its own, but if we think about the message of its past use, we find something worth preserving.
Instead of letting external events sap our energy, we can choose to direct our actions inward. Acts like exercising, meditating, or simply reading for pleasure all contribute to our individual well-being. Any action we choose that flexes self-control is helpful. Whether it’s taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or bicycling in lieu of driving, we have the power of choice in many, many ways throughout our day.
Altruism, besides helping others, benefits all involved by dispelling cynicism. Volunteering for a cause we believe in, donating to charity, even walking a neighbor’s dog when they take a trip out of town – every act which builds good will is one that diminishes cynicism.
That’s all for now, but I hope you found this short read on rerouting cynicism helpful.