In the fairy tale The Adventures of Pinocchio, the title character is the opposite of cynical. He is a gullible puppet who is repeatedly duped by other characters. Part of his transformation, into a human being, is learning to avoid becoming too trusting, while still exercising empathy.
A popular test of gullibility is to tell a friend that the word gullible isn’t in the modern dictionary; a gullible person might respond “Really?” and go to look it up! But we would not expect something like that from Pinocchio by the end of his story.
A cynical response to mass media messages
There are pitfalls in you trusting too readily what you are told. Living in the 21st century means being exposed to a constant stream of commercial messages and political spin. So many people promoting a particular version of the news or of what legitimate investigations report; all trying to tell you how to think. Perhaps they cynically assume we are all stupid, or that we put our intelligence to sleep as soon as we switch on the radio or TV.
Sometimes it feels you have to believe or disbelieve — to accept or deny — what you are being told. It can be difficult in this complex world to form a right opinion. So, rather than risk showing any ineptitude in your judgments, you might adopt a cynical attitude. Instead of becoming vulnerable to emotional appeals from people, you might dismiss in your mind any chance what they say has any validity.
But isn’t to do so, just swinging from one extreme to another: from being naive to lacking any hope in something good and true?
Cynicism makes things worse than they are in that it makes permanent the current condition, leaving us with no hope of transcending it. Idealism refuses to confront reality as it is but overlays it with sentimentality. (Richard Stivers)
How to get away from a cynical attitude
Our natural tendency is to see and experience everything in terms of space and time. Emanuel Swedenborg, however, exhorts his readers to raise their minds above space and time in order to comprehend something of the infinite and eternal. In other words he is saying it is a mistake to judge by appearances. But this is exactly the mistake you can easily make.
If you feel it might be too trusting to put your total faith in a spiritual dimension which you can only sense inwardly, you may instead adopt the position that only material things that science can demonstrate are real. In my opinion, in avoiding the error of credulity you would be falling into the trap of not realizing that outward appearances are often illusory, veiling a deeper spiritual reality.
What in effect Swedenborg is claiming is this. We all are given some intuitive awareness of what is deeply real in life. But some people are uninterested in knowing more about such things. Only when you have a love of knowing more about the deeper aspect of life, can your understanding of such things become enlightened. Until then you will tend to be materially minded and can become cynical about anything spiritual.
Noticing the spiritual
One example of what is spiritual is genuine romance between two people deeply in love.
But the cynic can deny such a spiritual reality
When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance. (Oscar Wilde)
A second example of what is spiritual, that can be denied, is the existence of a loving higher power influencing the universe and a source of what is noble in the human spirit.
They that deny a God destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature. (Francis Bacon)
A third example of the spiritual that can be denied is individual existence following bodily death.
Those who have adopted a cynical frame of mind say:
When you’re dead, you’re dead.
Such a view is probably an understandable over-reaction to a faith in traditional Christian doctrine of an afterlife that has no bodily sensation, is sexless and unproductive. Such an outmoded doctrine is contrary to Swedenborg’s own experience of meeting people who had once lived on earth, who, he claims, continue their existence in a realm subjectively similar to this one, in a spirit body with sight, smell, hearing and interaction with other spirit people.
Sceptical but not cynical
In favouring spiritual beliefs, I am not arguing for a thoughtless acceptance of what you read in books or of what spiritual teachers claim. On the contrary, I feel you should tackle such ideas by asking questions like, “What makes you think this way?” “What assumptions have you based your claim upon?” “What human experiences support your ideas?” To be sceptical is not to be too trusting but neither is it to become cynical.
Cynics never trust any information contrary to their belief system. They are closed minded. But sceptics want the truth and are brave enough to search for it.
Only by really wanting what is good and true can your understanding become enlightened.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems