bird flying over ocean with setting sun and pier

Doubt and cynicism are very, very popular.

Doubt and cynicism are very, very cool.

Who’s cooler than the rebel without a cause?

Who’s cooler than the person who believes in absolutely nothing—not religion, not family, not school, not government, not occupation, not friendship, not art, not hope, not love? Who sits in the corner with some sort of mood-enhancing drink or drug, laughing at the stupidity of everyone else?

But, what’s wrong with that? I mean, the world is pretty screwed up, is it not? There’s a lot to be doubtful and cynical about. There’s a lot of absurdity to laugh at. And there are many mood-enhancing options for the hard days.

Don’t we all have hard days?

Aren’t most days, for most of us, hard days?

Observations on What Works: With Others and Myself

There is a difficult teaching, one that’s hard to hear, and even harder to put into practice. But it’s one that I have come to adopt in my own life, as a result of trial and error. At least I try to adopt it. As I say, it’s difficult.

When I was a high school teacher, I learned that certain modes of teaching worked, while other modes did not. This was not something I learned in college. I wish someone had taught me this in college. But, no; it was mere tedious observation, day in and day out, as I tried to engage and inspire bored and frustrated teenagers.

Amazingly, I’m still learning this same lesson, as I go about my life today. I am no longer working with teenagers (alas—I miss them), but I interact with adults and children regularly. And the same difficult lesson applies. Every. Single. Time.

And then I think about my relationship with myself. (And with me. And I.) And the same darn difficult lesson applies here, too.

What’s the lesson? Doubt and cynicism can make people laugh. Doubt and cynicism can seem quite intellectually solid. But doubt and cynicism cannot effect change. They can only keep you, and everyone else, stuck in the same damn corner, killing yourself with your mood-enhancing drink or drug. If you want to effect change, you need to genuinely care, and you need to successfully communicate this genuine care to others. And if you want to effect change, you need to believe in something—lots of somethings, actually.

And here’s the rub: Belief and care are, by very definition, the opposite of doubt and cynicism.

Putting Belief and Care Into Practice

Implementing belief and care is a multifaceted endeavor. It works something like this:

So you’re a teacher? You need to love your students fiercely; believe that you have the power to help them learn; believe that you have the good judgment and assertiveness to set reasonable rules, and hold the students to those rules, while at the same time evincing kindness; believe that the institution you’re working in isn’t perfect but is somehow good enough; believe in some sort of higher power or force of fate that will guide you when things are rough; and, perhaps most importantly, hold yourself tenderly, celebrating your strengths and being gentle around your weaknesses, as you do this very hard job of teaching.

So you’re the organizer of a book club for adults? You need to devote yourself fiercely to the wellbeing of each and every person who shows up to your event; believe that you have the power to organize and host a successful event that will enable people to make real connections; believe that you have the good judgment and assertiveness to set reasonable boundaries, and enforce those boundaries, while at the same time evincing kindness; believe that the website, organization, and venue you rely on to make this event happen are good and helpful despite any flaws; believe that some sort of higher power or force of fate is directing you to this work and will be there for you as you engage in it; and, perhaps most importantly, hold yourself tenderly, celebrating your strengths and being understanding with yourself regarding the mistakes you will inevitably make, as you do this very hard job of hosting a book club.

So you’re a parent? You need to . . .

So you’re a partner? You need to . . .

And so on.

This may seem silly, corny, and naïve (read: the opposite of cool). But years of observation have shown me that this is how the world works. At least—this is how the world works when it’s actually working, not just spinning in place or regressing.

And I want to share another observation. The reason more people don’t practice this sort of radical belief and care is not because it’s uncool. It’s because it’s hard. Being cool is much easier, trust me.

Sophistication? Nah, Just Another Defense Mechanism

Jay Michaelson came to this realization through extended observation, too. In his essay collection Enlightenment by Trial and Error, he writes the following illuminating passage:

“Beginning on my first meditation retreat, years ago, I learned that the reflexive doubt and cynicism which I had been so proud of, and which are such fixtures in contemporary literary culture, are often not the sophistication they pretend to be, but a defense mechanism, bespeaking not cultured sophistication but shame, fear, or even ignorance. I’ve learned this through my own subjective experience, and through conversations and interactions with other people: What seems to be analytical cleverness is often a kind of cowardice.”

This passage touched me deeply. At the time that I read it, I was feeling alone in my conviction. I had made all these observations. And I had tested my theory in multiple situations, over two decades. And now, my favorite meditation teacher was validating my conviction. Ah—thanks!!

But here’s something I have come to realize more recently: this is not necessarily an either-or proposition.

It is possible to be analytical and clever, and to clearly see flaws and absurdities—while simultaneously wholeheartedly believing in people, organizations, and (however you wish to define them) higher powers or forces of fate.

It is possible to be analytical and clever, and to clearly see flaws and absurdities—without being contemptuous of people, organizations, and (however you wish to define them) higher powers or forces of fate.

When I was younger, I thought it had to be one or the other. Now I know that it is possible to hold opposing ideas together in one space—the critical and the loving—and that this is where true power lives. And by power, I mean the power to effect positive change and make the world a better place.

(Incidentally, I wish I could write more about the essay this passage appears in, “Religion and Insanity.” It’s a thought-provoking essay. It delves into Michaelson’s unusual career choices—which I wrote about in this post—and how hard it has been for him to choose a life path. But in the interest of keeping this blog post a reasonable length, I will move on.)

A Bird Needs Two Wings to Fly

A common saying in the Buddhist tradition compares a bird with two wings to two fundamental components of meditation practice (and living in general): wisdom and compassion. The essence of the saying is that a bird cannot fly with only one wing; likewise, people need to cultivate both wisdom and compassion in order to thrive. Just one or the other is not enough.

It’s interesting that I happened to stumble upon this metaphor this week (while listening to the Ten Percent Happier podcast). I have always stated and thought that this blog was about seeking wisdom. But now I’m wondering whether I’ve been acknowledging only one of the bird’s wings. I feel that compassion is also an overriding mindset behind this blog, and has been from the beginning. But compassion is not something you seek, as much as something you do. And I often find myself struggling to do it! That being said, I don’t think it would be hypocritical to claim that this blog is about seeking wisdom through books and elsewhere, while aspiring to undertake this journey with as much compassion toward others and myself as possible.

But that’s probably too long for a tagline, lol.

A final note. Two days ago, I published a jokey blog post in which I played the role of the ultimate doubting cynic—the ranter. (I hope it came across as the joke it was meant to be. If it did not, it would not be the first time a joke of mine was misunderstood. Humor is tricky and personal.) I think the joke was (hopefully!) funny because it was not the usual voice I write in. It was a parody of the doubters and cynics out there. It was me trying on someone else’s voice, like an actor in a role. It was fun to play the role, and hopefully funny to read; and hopefully it shed light, through the power of parody, on the toxicity of ranting. On the other hand, if people did not get the joke, then, alas!—I may have contributed to the doubt and cynicism of the world.

So let it be known—I do believe that belief and care are better ways of living than doubt and cynicism. (Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that belief and care are essential components that can and should live alongside the doubting and critical components of the mind? I think this is a balance problem, like so many problems out there. Don’t drink too little water, or too much. Both extremes can kill you. In this blog post, I did not address the equally problematic situation of believing and caring to the exclusion of analytical thought.) Yes, even though belief and care are difficult, and I definitely don’t come close to perfection there—they are worth striving toward. And any role playing and parodying I do in my writing are simply part of my larger goal of moving toward wisdom and compassion; for there is great power in fictional scenarios that invite the discerning reader to observe and reflect.

All right, signing off. Happy holidays, everyone. Sending much love to you and your families and everyone around you. Stay well, stay safe, and fly high.

Have you had any personal experiences, or made any personal observations, in regard to the relative power of belief and care vs. doubt and cynicism?

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