An Antidote for Cynicism

The year we won Family of the Year, I, mercifully, was not there. I was a month or two into my studies at a fundamentalist Bible institute in Argentina, where I would spend a couple months studying the Bible and Spanish, followed by a year taking Bible classes in Spanish. In the article I saw while home for Christmas, on the front page of the Lifestyle section of Chattanooga Times-Free Press, a sibling is holding a picture of me so the whole family would be represented. The award had something to do with the volunteer work we did as a family in our community, at our church, and with our homeschooling group. And all of that was true, and good. But the Family of the Year award came with the unspoken declaration that this was a model happy family, a playful family, and I was tired of pretending. I didn’t want to have to smile for the photographer, or come up with a heartwarming anecdote to tell the TV camera when Channel 9 came by to do a story on us. So I privately gave thanks that I was absent, unable to participate in the advancement of that narrative. 

I had been inculcated in the values of our church and taught the ways to behave, the things we had to pretend to remain members in good standing of our community. The world was cleanly divided into two groups, I heard over and over — those who followed God with all their heart and those who despised Him. We could expect to suffer some persecution from “the world” as long as we didn’t hide our light under a bushel, but life inside our house would be good. Outsiders would be able to tell by the way we treated one another that we were different, and since we were so good at hiding the cracks, at keeping up appearances, we were declared Family of the Year. My father took particular pride in this fact, bringing it up frequently in the next couple of years, as everything fell apart, as proof of what we’d had, as evidence that things had been perfect. I imagine he’s still telling that story to his friends, if he has any today — talking about his loving, exemplary family — but I don’t know. I’ve written elsewhere that I consider my father to be the logical conclusion of fundamentalism. I last saw him nearly a decade ago, and decided to cut off contact after God told him to kill me, my mom, and my siblings.

* * *

Is it possible, I wonder, that the practice of putting on masks in that religious community, the need we had to convince ourselves that we were happy and that our lives were better than those on the outside, made it inevitable that we would be pessimistic about the state of humanity as a whole? We said that God loved the whole world (even if He was only going to save a small number of them), but we didn’t love most people — not really. We were scared we would be corrupted by them. The world was getting worse every day as we got closer and closer to the End Times. It was all going to hell in a hand basket — just look at the signs! — but because we wanted to love what God loved, we gave lip service to the idea of loving humanity while holding our fear and disgust close to our hearts.

We are not the same.
If we think we are
we end up playing games
where dignity’s dependent
on some flimsy proof.

—Pádraig Ó Tuama, “We are not the same”

In her poem “Possibilities,” Nobel prize winner Wisława Szymborska declares: “I prefer myself liking people / to myself loving humanity.” I like that better than what I learned growing up. I find it much more hopeful. My childish conceptions of others and how I was expected to treat them fell apart as I grew older and met people outside of the small world I grew up in. These were people I genuinely liked and wanted to be around, people I even hoped to be like as I grew older, and the boxes I had been taught to put them in no longer fit.

I’m reminded of a passage from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (the book I name whenever I find myself in conversations about favorite titles). He wrote this in a 1926 journal entry from Detroit where he served as a pastor for thirteen years before joining the faculty of Union Seminary in New York City. Writing amid the upheaval and mistreatment of workers that accompanied Henry Ford and his assembly lines, he had ample opportunity to become ever more jaded and cynical, joining his fellow Detroit ministers in abstract declarations of their love — and God’s love — for the masses while keeping their distance from the people. Instead, he dug in. He chose intimate knowledge over abstraction: 

Cynics sometimes insinuate that you can love people only if you don't know them too well; that a too intimate contact with the foibles and idiosyncrasies of men will tempt one to be a misanthrope. I have not found it so. I save myself from cynicism by knowing individuals, and knowing them intimately.

* * *

I wrote an essay a few years ago to satisfy the requirements of a writing workshop I was attending in New Mexico, where I attempted to explore why the younger version of myself had been so driven by and consumed with fear. I thought of what I had been taught about the Biblical story of Uzzah, where he put out his hand to stop what seemed to me to be like a magic talisman, the Ark of the Covenant, from falling off the oxen-pulled cart it was being transported on. The god in this story had decreed that there were appropriate and inappropriate ways to handle the Ark, and since Uzzah’s instinctual stretching out of his arm to steady the ark, to keep it from crashing to the ground, broke these rules, God struck him dead on the spot.

Here’s how my great-grandfather, the fundamentalist evangelist and author John R. Rice, explained this story in The Rice Reference Bible, published by Thomas Nelson Publishers: 

In their joy, the people had become too familiar with and irreverent toward the ark. . . . However good the intentions of David and Uzzah, to disregard the plain commands of God about the way the ark was to be carried meant God’s punishment for their disobedience and irreverence.

In addition to this study Bible, which he edited with the help of a couple of my great uncles and other family friends, my great-grandfather wrote more than 200 books and pamphlets. Titles include What Is Wrong With the Movies? and Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives and Women Preachers: Significant Questions for Honest Christian Women Settled by the Word of God. And in those books, he frequently returned to the cautionary tale of Uzzah as a pointed reminder to his readers about the importance of following his teachings.

Growing up, I was intimately acquainted with the ways that story was used to control behavior. It is, to name just one example, a cornerstone of the fundamentalist argument about why rock music is such an abhorrence to God — an argument I swallowed hook, line, and sinker. (I recently came across a printed copy of a 20-page e-mail I wrote to friends I had met at a music camp I attended the summer after my senior year of high school, an e-mail outlining all the different ways they were offending God by listening to contemporary Christian music, parroting the best experts on the subject. None of my friends were persuaded.) Because of the satanic beat found in that style of music, so the argument goes, because the chaotic noise of drums and electric guitars is such a stench in the nostrils of the Most High, it didn’t matter how well-intentioned Jars of Clay and Steven Curtis Chapman were. God had declared how He wanted to be worshiped, and it wasn’t with “worldly” styles of music. 

A memory: I’m 18 years old, attending a winter music festival with my brother John, and there’s one act performing Urban Gospel music, the style most foreign to me out of everything I heard that night. They had most of the crowd on their feet, singing along about shackles falling off so they could dance, dance, dance, and I dutifully stood up when they asked everyone to praise God with them, but after standing for a minute, I collapsed back into my seat, sobbing, amazed that so many people could be so deceived. Amazed that so many people who called themselves Christians could think that they’re praising the one true God, when all they are doing is reaching out to steady the ark with their bare hand.

* * *

When I was a child, I lived in fear. Now that I’m a man, I’m learning — slowly, it sometimes seems — how to act out of love; love for my friend, love for my neighbor, love for myself. Love grounded in particulars, freed from the burden of empty rhetoric. Love that honors the dignity and complexity of every person I meet.

One recent Sunday morning, while I was mulling over these ideas about fear and love and cynicism, after ordering my usual at Fido’s — hash browns covered in cheese, sausage patties, a cup of coffee, black — I found my spot at the bar next to the front window and settled in to read Wendell Berry’s Window Poems, pausing at #13: 

Sometimes he thinks the earth
might be better without humans.
He’s ashamed of that.
It worries him,
him being a human, and needing
to think well of the others
in order to think well of himself. 

Here it is again: a confession that thinking well of others is difficult, that love is hard. “History,” Berry writes a few lines later, “is so largely unforgivable.” A truth that has been driven home in recent months with the weekly, sometimes daily, exposures of violence by those in power, violence directed toward those they’ve sworn to protect. I remember when the stories of police brutality most familiar to me — and here I’m confessing my privilege, my ability to ignore what is not directly affecting me — came from my uncle, recounting his college days protesting the Vietnam war and working for civil rights. 

But now? There are days when my whole being rises up in assent to Berry’s words, for sometimes he thinks the earth might be better off without humans. How does he resolve it? He stops. Breathes. Looks out his window, where he sees “nine ducks in flight, / and a hawk dive at his mate / in delight. // The day stands apart from the calendar.”

* * *

Photograph by Erin Reeve

The day stands apart from the calendar. We are saved from cynicism by knowing individuals, and knowing them intimately. I am saved from pessimism by liking people — my neighbors, my family, my community — in spite of their flaws. I am comforted by those who call me friend, even after learning my own flaws (a deep fear: if I let people truly see who I am, they won’t want me around). 

I have a friend who describes himself as a recovering cynic. He says he spent most of his twenties wearing his cynicism as a badge of pride, and only in the last couple of years has he seen it for the crutch it was. He wants now, in this recovery stage, to be known for the love he has for his family, his wife and daughters, and for the kind of openhearted friend he is. He wants to be known by his easy laughter. I hope, as the years pass, to be more like him.

Stephen Lamb lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he feels lucky to be able to do work he loves. When he’s not writing a string arrangement or printing out another thousand pages of music for a studio session or a symphony orchestra somewhere, you can usually find him hanging out at a local coffee shop or pub, book or journal in hand, or enjoying conversation with friends. Sometimes he dreams about being a writer. He blogs at 

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