cynicism, skepticism, optimism, realism (and the power of hope)
it’s good to be back! those 5 weeks flew by! i missed you here, but it’s been so great to be off-line for a while and enjoy summer with my kids (i’ve got 5 of them home right now so it’s nuts around here but really fun) & a little lighter refuge schedule. so much happened in this past month that i can never catch up on, and i won’t even try, but i thought i’d start with a post that’s been swirling around in my head for a while now and i finally had a chance to write.
* * * * *
years ago the last word someone would have associated with me was “cynicism.” “hopeful, positive, and optimistic” were much better descriptors. however, the truth is that cynicism was building for years after observing a pattern in churches we were part of that continually ignored pain, suffering & honesty. i kept it at bay because i always figured out a way to live out what i believed in some small pocket of love. and for a long time that was enough for me. it wasn’t until my big-church-blow-up in 2006 that the cynicism-about-the-church dial moved to full tilt.
the dictionary definition of cynical “bitterly or sneerlingly distrustful, contemptuous, or pessimistic.” i think cynicism has its place. honestly, if i wouldn’t have allowed myself to feel the range of how sad, angry, and disgusted i was with the “church” i don’t think i’d still be here. faking optimism wasn’t an option. playing nice would have been false. trying to skip over painful feelings would have ruined me in the end.
but like so many other things, it’s easy to get stuck on either end of any continuum. we are often more comfortable in pendulum swinging because it keeps things more clear & contained & predictable. however, black or white, good or bad, hot or cold thinking is always very limiting. if we think cynicism or cheery optimism are our only choices, we’re set up for either misery or constant disappointment when it comes to all-things-church.
skepticism is a few degrees to the middle of cynicism. many of us who are rebuilding after deconstructing need to approach issues of church and faith in a more discerning way. we can’t get wowed-in, sucked-in, charmed-in, convinced-in, shamed-in anymore. we see things through more honest lenses. however, when we are always skeptical, we tend to notice the worst first instead of the best. we’re constantly being triggered and are wary of trusting anything and anyone. although i believe skepticism is more productive than cynicism, i still think it’s limiting and chokes off life. it creates a hardness of heart, a protection that prevents us from experiencing not only the bad but also the good.
but i definitely can’t use the word “optimism” when it comes to church. i used to have a lot of it, but it was the unrealistic, naive kind that eroded over time. i believe we are in worse shape than we even know, that many of the systems we’ve created and continue to perpetuate are never going to allow us to experience the kind of freedom & healing & equality & beauty that Jesus intended when he called his followers to be like him.
i have decided that a much healthier place for me to land is what i call “hopeful realism”, accepting things for what they are in a more realistic way while being open to possibilities.
it doesn’t mean cynicism, skepticism, or optimism aren’t sprinkled in there, but realism helps me to see things from a more honest perspective, to accept what i can’t change and center on what i can (yes, i love that serenity prayer). realism helps me not have a false hope that tomorrow all my dear & wise & amazing sisters will get a phone call offering them awesome ministry positions with equal pay and power that they deserve. it helps me remember that my marginalized friends, while slowly making inroads, are far from being fully included just as they are. realism helps me say with confidence that there are enough resources & time & heart & help to meet the overwhelming needs in each and every community & city & town & neighborhood, but these resources are not distributed properly because so many would rather go to church than be the church. it helps me not feel totally crazy when i see what people are willing to be inconvenienced for (like standing in line for hours to buy a chicken sandwich) in the name of Jesus while countless people in their cities are in desperate need of food & shelter & love.
even though these realities can be so discouraging, they also remind me how desperate we are for change & Hope.
cynicism is absent of hope. skepticism deeply limits it. naive optimism creates false hope. but realism opens up the doors for the kind of deep hope i think God brings: that there’s far more going on than meets the eye, that the ways of the world (and often “the church”) are not the ways of Jesus, and that miracles, no matter how big or small, are always possible.
i don’t want to be a cynic, although it had its place. i don’t want to spend all my days being so skeptical that i miss out on the good. and i don’t want to be a naive, cheery optimist who thinks things are much better than they really are.
i want to remain open and in awe of the weird & wild & mysterious ways God moves, heals, transforms, redeems, restores even when i can’t see or understand it.
and i want to be willing to be part of the change, no matter how hard or slow some of those changes might be.
how about you? where do you fall on the cynic-skeptic-optimist-realist grid these days?
* * * * *
ps: i had already written this piece when i saw the picture & quote below on facebook, but i thought it was appropriate (posted by the God article).