Comedian Lily Tomlin recently said something like, “The problem with being a cynic these days is that it's difficult to keep up.” There is certainly no shortage of targets for the cynics in our current economy. The woes of Wall Street, the scandals from the corporate board rooms, and the posturing of politicians trying to get votes give us plenty of reason to be distrusting of the rhetoric we hear on a national level. On a local level, we might wonder if our own organizations have fallen victim to the “infectious greed” that Alan Greenspan warns us about. Whether it is the leaders of the company complaining that the work ethic has changed for today’s employees or whether it is the workers feeling used by an organization that does not seem to care about them, the attitudes toward our local situation can be as jaded as they are toward the nation as a whole.
Cynicism is the order of the day.
Unfortunately, the order of the day is an order of “psychological junk food.” Cynical responses feel really good at the moment just like greasy fast food. And like junk food, they cause problems for us down the road.
Emotional Underpinnings of Cynicism
It is easy for the cynic to recognize that it is a response born out of anger. We are angry at the individuals or the company that misled us. The cynical response seems “streetwise.” We have identified the culprit(s) who have abused our trust. It is insightful to be able to see past the protestations of innocence and learn that the tobacco companies knew what they were doing or the Enron executives and Anderson auditors were fully aware of the accounting tricks they were using to deceive others. The most accomplished cynics are even able to identify other players in the deception, including those who profited from the ruse or others who knew but lacked the moral courage to speak out.
And like junk food, the cynicism begins to be our favorite meal after a while. We desire cynicism for the sake of cynicism. We lose sight of the long term harm because the short term consumption of this psychological junk food is so tasty. We find some sense of satisfaction in recognizing how bad things are. The expert cynic will point out that things are even worse than anyone knew.
Beneath the anger of cynicism we are also experiencing grief. There is no cynic who was not once an idealist. We once believed that we could make a difference in our world. We dreamed of contributing to the benefit of the human community through our work.
Our idealism was met with resistance. We discovered that what we offered was not wanted, or that someone tried to steal it from us without just compensation. We learned that others, whom we admired for their ideals, had a dark side that spoiled our beliefs about them. In the face of this resistance, we let go of the dreams and beliefs and ideals. We judge them to be “childish” (because the ideals were usually born when we were very young) and accept the cynical view as mature and sophisticated.
Cynicism is really a reaction to loss. It is not a loss of something material, but of something that is lost within our soul. We are angry because this is not the way the world “should” be. But our experience tells us that the world is not just. Our experience also warns us that we are not powerful enough to change it. And so we surrender to the cynical.
In the short term, cynicism keeps us alert to the potential dangers that lurk from the individuals and organizations that try to manipulate us into believing what they say while distracting us from what they do. Like junk food, it fills the immediate hunger.
It is the long term effects of cynicism that pose the real danger. Cynicism reminds us that the world is unjust and that we are powerless to change it. The first half of this sentence is indisputable. The experience of injustice in the world is the experience of virtually everyone. Cynicism assumes the second half of the sentence. It takes the form of a belief about our self. Psychological research has shown conclusively that our beliefs about ourselves have a self-fulfilling quality about them. In other words, if I believe that I am powerless, then I will act as if that it true.
The more cynical we become the more we surrender our own personal power. That is the true danger of the cynical attitude. It clogs the arteries of our soul. In exchange for the momentary satisfaction of feeling full, we give up the ability to make a difference in the world.
Is there an alternative way of doing business?
Our work life is too important to be confined only to the bottom line. In the beginning, we dreamed of doing work that would contribute to the welfare of the world around us. That dream does not need to be given up because it is difficult to accomplish. Although we think of the accomplished cynic as being “mature” or “sophisticated,” we still define our heroes as those who did not let go of their ideals even when it was very difficult.
Alternative medicine (sometimes now termed "complementary medicine) has grown alongside traditional medicine. It provides a necessary correction to the traditional practices which had begun to lose sight of the goal of healing. The two approaches, in tension with each other, provides an expansion of what it means to care for the health of patients. Business, as it has evolved, is no longer healthy for the human being. Perhaps it is time for us to develop an “alternative business.” There is a way to work that recognizes that “making a profit” is only one goal. There are other reasons to engage in business. Goods and services add quality to life. People find community with each other as they work together. Talents are put to use and creativity is challenged in the pursuit of excellence. There is a clear sense of purpose that emerges from what we do.
What would happen if we ate a balanced psychological diet that included quality, community, talent and purpose alongside the effort to make a profit? Would the business efforts collapse? Or would the slower growth that avoids the "profit at any cost" approach actually prove to be more valuable to us?
Where to Begin
I am not yet ready to give up all my cynicism. There is a lot to be cynical about. I do recognized, however, that it is not healthy for me to give it too much credence in my day-to-day life. Cynics can become hostile and bitter over time. It will not provide the quality of life I seek, so it must be balanced.
The place to start is to re-connect to the reasons I chose this career. For me, as a psychologist, it is a deep and passionate desire to help people express their talents and function at the highest levels of excellence. That is my passion and those who are unjust or manipulative cannot take it away from me. I will not surrender it to them. What is it that brings you passion?
However, if I am to maintain my commitment to my passions, I will need to find support from others who are also committed to remaining passionate about their work. What the specific work involves is not as important as the shared passion to be the best. Humans become their best in community. Who are the people in your life who are truly committed to being their best?
Work is a part of what brings life its quality. But those who overwork do not perform better. It is important to take time for family and friends and to play. It is necessary to develop the ability to walk away from work pressure for a while and to enjoy the other elements of life. What are the other important aspects of your life?
4. Take your Vitamin C's.
The Vitamin C's for an Emotionally Healthy Workplace are part of the overall diet that will sustain the efforts to put quality back into the work life. How do you approach your work and handle the stress it brings?
"The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." -Henry David Thoreau