On Cynicism, Welfare, and Justice vs. Mercy

“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.”

– Stephen Colbert (yes, that Stephen Colbert)

While out with friends this past weekend, I was reminded of a character trait I have that I really wish I didn’t. I am a cynic.

I think we have a misconception of what cynicism is. We seem to confuse it with simple pessimism or run-of the-mill negativity. It’s not quite the same and goes a bit deeper than that. I actually like how Wikipedia defines cynicism (and we all know Wikipedia is the best thing ever). Cynicism is defined by the following characteristics:

  • A general distrust in other’s motives
  • Lack of faith or hope in the human race
  • Perceiving others’ intentions as unrealistic or inappropriate and thus worthy of ridicule
  • Jaded negativity

I suppose we are all cynics to a certain degree which can be understandable considering the world we live in. Cynicism comes at us from all angles in just about every area of our life including the media, politics, work, home, and finally (and lamentably) in our Church and spiritual lives.

It is probably easiest to see cynicism in the realm of politics and government. We often accuse “the other side” of hypocrisy, scandal, power-grabbing, dishonesty, and ulterior motives while at the same time ignoring (or even accepting) those faults in the side we support. (Right now, you’re probably nodding along to this thinking, “yep, they sure do!”). This cynicism has unfortunately resulted in political apathy as young voters especially have taken on the attitude of “what difference does it make?”

At work, we will often question a new initiative or program as way for the company to gain more control, pay less, or both. We see co-workers actions as brown-nosing or political gamesmanship. And, of course, when a co-worker does get promoted, recognized, or have any success, we chalk it up to those same politics, favoritism, or our favorite cynical reason, luck.

Our cynicism can become especially dangerous when it infects our spiritual life. As an example, in the Mormon Church all adults are assigned as Home Teachers or Visiting Teachers where we are assigned to visit and help watch over four or five families of the congregation. In a perfect world, everyone fulfills this duty and many members of our Church receive the temporal and spiritual sustenance that this service provides. However, it is probably the most neglected of our duties. The reason? While many think of it as simple laziness and apathy, I tend to point out our cynical tendencies. We just don’t see the point and therefore don’t think it does any good. Those that are active members of the Ward are perfectly and come anyway and those that don’t don’t really care. Again, what’s the point?

The point is in the attributes that we aspire to.

…faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God…(D&C 4:5)

Where these attributes exist, cynicism cannot.

Another area where I see cynicism is in issues of welfare.  As a Bishop, I have a sacred duty to both “seek out and care for the poor” and to administer to them appropriately.  This can be and often is the a very taxing process for a Bishop especially during economic hardship like we have had for the past few years.

Cynicism enters the discussion when we start to deem others unworthy or undeserving of help.  We have a tendency to question peoples motives, doubt that they’ll learn anything or improve, and at times mock their situation.  As King Benjamin once asked, “Are we not all beggars?”  As someone who was for a time raised on Deseret Beef, it is often hard for me to face those kinds of reactions.

This judgement is not for anyone other than the bishop, and it is a difficult judgement to make.  No other thing I do represents the balance of Justice and Mercy.  When someone brings me a bill they simply cannot cover that month or have an empty fridge that needs to be filled, Justice demands that they take care of it themselves.  They got themselves in this mess, they need to get themselves out.  Mercy asks that I take those bills and pay them with the donations from the various members of the ward, often quite literally, it’s the widow’s mite.  There is no clear-cut answer whether Justice is demanded or Mercy offered.  Some people need one more than the other.  But again, this is Bishop’s difficult decision to make and cynicism is something that neither helps them nor us.

When accused of cynicism, the common response is, “I’m not a cynic, I’m a realist.”  There is probably some truth to that.  The ever-quotable George Bernard Shaw once quipped:

“The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”

Too often we are resistant to offering a difference of opinion as we don’t want to cause any contention, disagree with our leaders, or be accused of a lack of faith.  There is little value to being “yes” men (or women) in our conversations or councils.  Else, why would we have councils?  We need to have honest and forthright discussion about the issues that face us today and often those will lead to disagreements, which is fine as long as we are doing it with the end in mind.  The principle of common consent demands discussion, debate, and faith in the end result.  I guess accusing one of being a cynic can also be a demonstration of one’s cynicism (mind blown).

Cynicism is simply something that I struggle with and will probably continue to do so for some time.  It’s my prayer that some day my cynicism will be replaced with faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God.  Some day…


James Faulconer on why sometimes Mormons drive him crazy.

Interesting blog post on Mormon Intellectuals’ use of Trojan Horses.  I don’t agree with everything here but it was a good one to think about.

I came a across a post on a popular sports blog about a college basketball team doing a promotional video where they lip-sync Chicago.  I thought, “Please don’t be BYU.”  Darn it.

One thing I really appreciate is a good cover song, though it has to be done well.  I thought the Lumineers covering my favorite Talking Heads song, This Must be the Place (Naive Melody), is a solid effort.

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