Thursday, September 21, 2023

Hope Is Every Bit As Infectious As Cynicism

In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we. ~Fyodor Dostoevsky

Cynicism is generally defined as the belief that our fellow humans are motivated purely by self-interest and is characterized by skepticism, distrust, and suspicion. One of my college professors, a self-confessed cynic and all-around aggravating man, asserted that skepticism, distrust, and suspicions were the only rational responses because it was impossible for anyone to act in a way that is not selfish. When someone would challenge him with something like, “What about a stranger who runs into a burning building to save a child?” he would respond, “It was still a selfish act because he knew that otherwise he would be consumed with guilt.”

Maybe you can’t win an argument with a professor of rhetoric, a professional cynic, but that doesn’t mean he’s right.

Cynicism doesn’t come naturally to me, which has led some to call me naive or idealistic. Indeed, those are words used as stand-alone critiques by those who are cynical about play-based or self-directed learning. If they are trying to be kind, they might use more positive words like “optimistic,” “trusting,” or “hopeful,” although in the mouth of a cynic they still come across as patronizing. When we are fighting on behalf of play-based learning, our instincts are often to assume that if we only provide enough evidence or information or science, we will ultimately be persuasive, and that would be the way to go if our adversary was mere ignorance. But it’s not – it’s cynicism.

I’ve always found it easy to expect the best of young children. Maybe it’s just my nature. Maybe it’s my upbringing. Whatever the case, it is my default position, and is probably why I gravitated into this profession. By the same token, I can’t abide the knee-jerk cynicism of adults, especially adults who work with young children, who are forever expressing suspicion about children’s motives. For these cynics, a child’s tears are always manipulation, freedom will only lead to them wasting time, and if they are not kept under constant adult control it will all devolve into a Lord of the Flies dystopia.

“Cynicism is not a neutral position,” writes musician Nick Cave on his site The Red Hand Files, “and it asks almost nothing of us. It is highly infectious and unbelievably destructive. In my view, it is the most common and easy of evils.”

The only antidote to cynicism is hope, which to a cynic will always, at least at first, sound naive. But at bottom, we all have vast experience with naivete. We know it's true with children, who are the definitions of it, but I find myself turning to the Dostoevsky quote at the top of this post as a regular reminder that it is true for everyone. The hard-boiled detective only exists in fiction. The hopelessness that stands at the heart of cynicism is a sign of brokenness. And it is a cruelty, even abusive, to infect others, especially young children with it.

Hope knows that cynicism is armor, worn by wounded people, disguised as a chic suit of sarcasm and reason. It’s tempting to use the word misanthropy here, but I don’t think it’s that as much as self-loathing and the fear that trusting others is just a set up for pain. Cynicism views hope as weak because, from where they sit, peeking out between the slits in their armor, those innocent children and foolish adults are just setting themselves up for heartbreak. Just wait and see. And they get to be right because heartbreak is as inevitable as the sunrise. See? I told you so.

When I stand amongst children who know they have permission to play, however, I have no need of any armor, so I’ve learned to shed it, to make myself as vulnerable as they are, opening myself to heartbreak, sure, because I’m exposing my naive and simple-heartedness. I can do this because I’m confident that these children, these original people, will be kind to me, even if they aren't always gentle. They will help me, even if they don’t always know what I need. They will be generous, only objecting when commanded to “share” or “take turns.” And they trust me, even if I do not trust them. 

When I left the work-a-day world of cynicism, of adults in their armor, to enter a world of children, I had no choice but to do so disarmed. They disarmed me. I let them disarm me. I hadn’t felt so free, so purposeful, so curious, since I myself was a child. It’s a world of hope. Hope is every bit as infectious as cynicism.

And the cynics are wrong: hope is not weak.

“Unlike cynicism,” writes Cave, “hopefulness is hard-earned, makes demands upon us, and can often feel like the most indefensible and lonely place on Earth. Hopefulness is not a neutral position either. It is adversarial. It is the warrior emotion that can lay waste to cynicism. Each redemptive or loving act, as small as you like . . . such as reading to your little boy, or showing him a thing you love, or singing him a song, or putting on his shoes, keeps the devil down in the hole.”

I love that: it is hope, not anger or fear, that makes us warriors on behalf of young children who only want to live, disarmed, open to the world and all its experiences. 

My rhetoric professor was not right about human nature, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. The cynic predicts it will rain and, if they wait long enough, they will be proven right. And they will have lived a life of waiting for the worst. Hope, however, predicts nothing. It anticipates. It knows that life is not for waiting, but for doing, right now, disarmed, making the most of each present moment, naively and simple-mindedly perhaps, but with curiosity and even awe. Hope makes us get up when we fall. Hope makes us help others when they fall. When we look forward with hope, we play with the better angels of our nature.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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