Thursday, June 2, 2016

Response to Maria Popova Cautionary Essay regarding a Culture of Cynicism

Maria Popova essay, Some Thoughts on Hope, Cynicism, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves, places cynicism on the polar side of Hope. This identified kind of raw cynicism is “that terrible habit of mind and orientation of spirit in which, out of hopelessness for our own situation, we grow
embittered about how things are and about what’s possible in the world. [Hence this sort of] Cynicism is a poverty of curiosity and imagination and ambition. . . In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope [on the other hand] is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.”

She advises,
Today, the soul is in dire need of stewardship and protection from cynicism. The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope — not blind optimism, because that too is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine [or other sentimental blah, blah, blah] and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that.

Popova’s notion of critical thinking resonates with my conception of gentle cynicism, which sees dark cynicism always lurking in the background seeking to make ground in some way, while in front of me is hope (I am thinking here of the theory of hope and its landscape). Gentle Cynicism seeks to hold the polar sides in tension via various practices that allow one to engage in clear-headed critical thinking, goals, and pathways that envision ways to create and endeavor to do something that contributes to human flourishing (eudaimonia) spured by the complex notion of hope.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Evangelicals Anxiously Forgotten the Way

Like Charles Krauthammer’s baffled response to evangelicals’ support of such a vulgar, egotistic leader, Donald Trump (“Defender of Faith” March 5), I too ask how a large mass of Christian evangelicals have become so far removed from the core ethic of the Christian Tradition in their craze with Donald Trump. The answer might be complex, albeit Trump helps to diagnose the problem. Trump’s own rhetoric has been able to tap into their anxieties--anxieties that surface as fear of impotence, negation, and disempowerment.
What’s worse is the shift to a leader like Trump is further evidence that a mass of evangelicals
are far removed from their namesake, the “good news.”   The evangelion or “good message” pronounces an enduring vision of the kingdom of God that protects and advocates for the exiled, the poor and parentless; and supports organizations that offer a vision and concern that has echoes of the Great Reversal (e.g., economic and racial equality). Instead, a great host of traditional evangelicals, it would seem, just want “someone to protect them” at the expense of choosing a toxic leader who reverberates strong tones of bigotry and racism.
Such regression, not to speak of sour interpretation due to an inability to set aside personal and ideological biases, means instead of becoming part of a life-changing and transformative encounter with the current culture, they are quickly overtaken by another’s weak promises and have quickly adopted his caustic ideology.
Trump offers strength against what these lost evangelicals fear. Yet he offers very little in the way of solutions with substance while rallying people about dividing groups, building walls and name calling. He motivates vigorously while under protest from others while his numbers continue to fathom many. This is the force of anxiety being feed like a cancer.
Anxiety, especially since 9/11 has become a pronounced feature of our time and Trump profits on people’s fears. While anxiety certainly has its place in the psyche and can be a motivating force, Trump is spreading societal anxiety epidemically. This pandemic can be interpreted through the insight of Edwin FriedmanA Failure of Nerve. The Five Characteristics of Chronically Anxious Societies (2007).
 First there is “reactivity.” No doubt, many evangelicals feed on the distraction of a 24/7 news litany that is destructive to their consciousness and have become acquainted and comforted by Trump’s reactive nature and his quick fix solutions that are mixed with his own anxious rhetoric.  Friedman explains that highly reactive groups “are in a panic in search of a trigger.” In this case, Trump supplies the trigger.  Second is the impulse of “herding”, a regressive tendency to reverse one’s direction of “adaption toward strength,” while organizing one’s survival around the least mature, the most dependent, or dysfunctional member of a group. As Krauthammer points out, “a more scripturally, spiritually flawed man than Trump would be hard to find.”
 “Blame displacement” is one of Trump’s fierce tactics which focuses on pathology rather than strengths. This is well exemplified in Trump’s naming all the ills and isms he promises to protect against with “a not-going-to-take-it-anymore defiance” absent of policy and substance. Trump feeds the primal instinct for mimetic scapegoat mechanism with his call to ban all Muslims from entering the US.  This and his mantra “I will build a great wall” are examples of the fourth characteristic of chronically anxious groups, a “quick-fix mentality”. Chronically anxious societies and groups find solace or obsession with technique and method over maturity.
Lastly, the above characteristics of chronically anxious groups lead to the creation and dependence of “poorly defined leadership” whose motivation revolves around crises while lacking distance to discern clear vision and is thus unable to develop a well-principled presence.
 It may well be too late, as evangelical’s insular need for protection results in an inability to function in a position of strength and to appreciate areas of consensus and agreement; hence preventing them from influencing the surrounding society with a range of concerns that religious and secular traditions all have in common, such as the sanctity of life, the well-being of the family, justice for the poor, economics of inclusion and equality, care for creation, peace, freedom and racial justice.
For Krauthammer, Trump appears like a malignancy, which can only be eradicated by an intense, all-out attack, leaving evangelicals on the right in a position of significant weakness and loss of an already weakening influence on the body politic.  We all do well to hear the often repeated message, “Be not afraid.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Can Capitalism and Democracy Coexist? Two videos that inform the politics and economics of our times

Chris Hedges and Sheldon Wolin 
work at the critical question: 
Can Capitalism and Democracy Coexist? 

Nick Hanauer, "Beware fellow plutocrats, the pitchforks are coming!
A "proud and unapologetic capitalist," he has also been looking at our growing inequality gap, and the way it damages our democracies. In 2013, Hanauer published a commentary in Bloomberg BusinessWeek proposing a $15 minimum wage. Hanauer believes if societal inequality is allowed to grow unchecked, modern societies could start looking like pre-Revolutionary France.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Another Expanding Year of the Practice and Art of Gentle Cynicism

Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths.” [1]

I have traversed another year aware of the expanding, living dynamism that comes by way of the practice and art of gentle cynicism.  While this site provides numerous examples of my thinking and musing around this practice, gentle cynicism has and continues to be a dynamic filter of sorts (dialectical in aspect, phenomenological in mind) between myself and the world that in a way sifts chaff from wheat, i.e., what is accepted from what is best, what misses the mark from what is actually participating with or working toward a higher ideal/reality/vision—Shalom, the Way, Tao, The Middle Way, truly and fully living substance.

The Society of Gentle Cynicism has become a personal nomenclature for me that identifies a way of existence in a culture that is at large unaware that it follows a failed dominate script (story ) that promotes an illusion of safety, health and happiness. This dominant script in the society at large is therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism [2] that unfortunately imbues almost every dimension of the common life.  Gentle cynicism supports disengagement from and relinquishment of that script while mediating the de-scripting and disengagement and the unfolding via a steady patient intentional articulation of an alternative/counter script that opens the actual, self−becoming, self−development experiencing fully and realizing human flourishing.

While the roots of gentle cynicism may go back a ways for me (and have ancient roots), my experience in the military between 2003-8 became an encounter that called for serious engagement and relinquishment from the dominant script. See “From Soldier to Conscientious Objector” [3]. After more than eight years  Gentle Cynicism” continues to be a way of moving through (not stepping away from) tensions where there is a complex array of easy-to-get-to thin practices, answers and ideals on one side; while on the other, profound, thick sources of questions and insights that invite persistent souls toward the way of becoming more fully human. The task is one of becoming comfortable with doubt, negation and integration via dialectic process knowing that forms are dynamic and developing in time.

My recent projects practicing gentle cynicism have focused around how I work and live in the day-to-day, being aware of the challenges that comes from living in a society that widely turns a blind eye, is ensnared by the technological craze at the expense of their minds (geist); taking on the dominant story, for they have no story; and realizing that I need and want to be and stay awake/alive in a way that surmounts the dark reality expressed by Thomas Merton, and William Stafford.

The flesh and passions, of themselves, tend to anarchy, being at the mercy of sense stimulation, and hence responding blindly and automatically to every stimulus that presents itself . . . the psyche of man struggles in a thousand ways to silence the secret voice of anxiety. [4]

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep. [5]

Why resist in anxious quest the vast, expanding universe defending our plans, imaginations and desires against the cruel, dark world, when instead we could go with a flow that overtime unfolds a journey, hidden wholeness, expressions of reality, all infusing essential substance and knowing within and around our human lives with dignity, contributing to eudaimonia.

 I commit afresh to the practice of and Society of Gentle Cynics . . .

Touring as a recusant
of hegemonic norms, arrive
a gentle cynic
negating Deus Aderit. [6]

[1] From “How to Think”; e.g., Prophets, Artist, Poets, Writers, Journalist, Philosophers, Musicians, Theologians
[2] Tim Suttle, “Walter Brueggemann’s 19 Theses Revisited: A Clarification from Brueggemann Himself” (4/15/2014);
[4] Thomas Merton, The New Man
[5] William Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”, The Darkness Around Us Is Deep. New York: Harper Collins, 1993, 135.
[6] Daniel J. Seifert, the last stanza of “The Ride” 2012.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Theology of Cracked Spaces: A Confluence of Traditions to a Confluence of Spirit

“A Theology of Cracked Spaces: A Confluence of Traditions toa Confluence of Spirit” is a holiday reflection that comes from Omid Safi, a columnist for On Being.

A Christmas card by Banksy, showing Joseph and Mary blocked from Bethlehem by the Israeli West Bank barrier. 
(Banksy / Flickr  All rights reserved.)

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Art of Self

One of the inherent frustrations among Westerns in modernity is the quest to discover one’s purpose, sustainable contentment, and further making a livelihood out of meaningful work. Daily we are subject to an overwhelming barrage of scripts that promise to make us safe and happy yet fail to do so.  Hence the notion of happiness is generally connected to moments in a day that must be maintained by rising above boredom or repressing chronic, internal anxieties or stress that would quickly exhaust the average person if it were not for material consumption, the technologies created to “save time” and the need to be always doing something. God forbid that we try to contemplate the reality of death or sit in silence for more than five minutes which are the kind of moments that lead us closer to moments of awakening.  

Carl Jung said that with all this resistance and distraction, consciousness is still pressing forward "to its own inertia, but the unconscious lags behind, because the strength and inner resolve needed for further expansion have been sapped." Hence there is a disunity with oneself that breeds discontent. A critical atmosphere thus must develop—the necessary prelude to conscious realization. This is a quiet call from within to listen, to pay attention to the hidden, to possess the secret imprisoned in inescapable egotism yet gradually to be revealed by way of discovery, a natural progression within all of us that often goes unnoticed or unheard until it is late in life. It is the inner voice that begs your reflection now and over time and promises wholeness, completeness, human flourishing.

While I have been on this path for some years, I recently came across an exercise in Friedrich Nietzsche’s  Schopenhauer as Educator that essentially was written to provide a starting point to youth or any searching individual who is willing to chase a set of probing questions over time as a method to assist in the cardinal yet byzantine task of knowing oneself. Nietzsche begins, and I recommend as a threshold this project.   

How can one know himself? It is a dark, mysterious business: if a hare has seven skins, an individual may skin himself seventy times seven times without being able to say, "Now that is truly you; that is no longer your outside." It is also an agonizing, hazardous undertaking thus to dig into oneself, to climb down toughly and directly into the tunnels of one's being. How easy it is thereby to give oneself such injuries as no physician can heal. Moreover, why should it even be necessary given that everything bears witness to our being – our friendships and animosities, our glances and handshakes, our memories and all that we forget, our books as well as our pens. For the most important inquiry, however, there is a method. Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: 
Here is Nietzsche’s method laid out in the form of questions. I suggest take several weeks to do this--there is no time line. Lay out your musings on paper or document; keep coming back to it and lay it out, expand it as described below.  The numbering is mine for which I recommend following a process that follows natural steps. I have provided some alternative translations in the brackets.

[1] "What have you up to now truly loved, [2] what has drawn your soul upward, [3] mastered [dominated] it and blessed [uplifted] it too [at the same time]?" [4] Set up these things that you have honored [revered objects] before you, and, maybe, they will show you, in their being and their order, a law which is the fundamental law of your own self. [5] Compare these objects, consider how one completes and broadens and transcends and explains another, [6] how they form a ladder on which you have all the time been climbing to your [true] self: for your true being lies not deeply hidden in you, but an infinite height above you, or at least above that which you do commonly take to be yourself.
Nietzsche embodied and laid credit to Schopenhauer for the challenge and insight to always pay attention, study and know our personal life/self that we might come to see our true selves. If not we are thus prone to become like the masses, exposed to the dominant scripts enacted through advertising, propaganda and ideology that promise to make us safe and to make us happy, yet have and will fail.*  In order to escape the gravitational pull of the dominant societal narratives that cannot begin to support the project of knowing one’s self, we must become de-scripted so that over time we might relinquish a world that no longer exists and indeed never did exist.  In a real sense, we must construct over time a counter script. A counter script in the words of William Stafford is conveyed with a metaphor of the “thread” in “The Way it is”.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
 William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

Furthermore, Nietzsche’s method guides one in this needful process of de-scripting and re-scripting by way of what Robert Pippin describes as Nietzsche’s defense of a . . .

 . . .novel conception of genuine selfhood as a never-to-be completed process of self-development and self-overcoming, a philosophical project that recognizes the elements of truth contained in both essentialist and existentialist theories of the self, while committing itself fully to neither. The 'true' self, according to the author of Schopenhauer as Educator, is neither an externally given and unchangeable 'essence' (such as Schopenhauer's 'intelligible character’) nor an arbitrary and freely-willed 'construct'. My 'true' self is something I have to 'become', but it is also what I already 'am'. (Introduction to Nietzsche, R Pippin, Ed. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012, 80)
Nietzsche further exhorts,

No one can construct for you the bridge upon which precisely you must cross the stream of life, no one but you yourself alone. There are, to be sure, countless paths and bridges and demi-gods which would bear you through this stream; but only at the cost of yourself: you would put yourself in pawn and lose yourself. There exists in the world a single path [the tread] along which no one can go except you: whither does it lead? Do not ask, go along it.
If we do not discover and claim our selves, which includes ours gifts, knowing our true talents and place in life, embracing and following our star or call, we will never unite in the words of Frost (“Two Tramps in Mud Time”),  

My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.

The failure to know one’s self is to be disembodied, disordered and confused, and unable to pass beyond ourselves among the psyche’s struggle to silence the secret voice of anxiety in order to discover through contemplation our true self, what Thomas Merton named the “hidden wholeness.”  This may well be a way of describing a place of human flourishing when we discover ourselves being fully actualized as we are meant to be. (T Merton, The New Man, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 1961)

Finally Nietzsche: “There may be other methods for finding oneself, for waking up to oneself out of the anesthesia in which we are commonly enshrouded as if in a gloomy cloud — but I know of none better than that of reflecting upon one’s educators and cultivators.” Here (the method above) Nietzsche gives us a place to start to consider those who have informed use over time, the various people and actions of others that have influenced us and have in part breathed life into us or imparted to us a model of what we intrinsically view as genuine and worthy of holding on to which may well inform us about the person we are and wish to be.

Image, Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin's Heart
* While there are various dominant scripts and ideologies, one rational summation of the scripting in our society is a script of "technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socializes us all, liberal and conservative". (Walter Brueggemann)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Hope and the Gentle Cynic

The combination of critical thinking and hope
Maria Popova of the website Brain Pickings, in an interview with Krista Tippet argued,
Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naïveté. I try to live in this place between the two to try to carve a life out there because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom and against which it is the sort of futile self-protection mechanism.
Here Popova practice provides an elegant example of a well-adjusted, thoughtful person who tackles via “a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why." It is a public example into how to live and what it means to lead a good life, a honing of one's niche. 
Here I unpack the above statement a bit as it oscillates with my idea of gentle cynicism and way of navigating the challenging territory between and to prevent full-blown cynicism while working with hope.  For me gentle cynicism is dealing with the limitations of a world juxtaposed with the social and moral issues of the day filtered through narrative, poetry, philosophy and social ethic (tools for critical thinking).
Here is a visual, continuum model that places “hope” as the mean good.

            Cynicism            gentle cynicism                                  Hope                      mediocrity                          Naiveté    
             -------------------------------------------------------> -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  >
                                                        Critical Thinking                                                                                Unreflected life
                      [Self-protective resignation]                                                                                                                                                      [Blind resignation]

But on the other hand, believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation because we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better [telos] . And I think in order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization, but especially in order to thrive; we need to bridge critical thinking with hope.
Hope seeks out possibility, requires necessity, and is the proper relating of self to itself.  (Paul Ricoeur).  In Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death, Ricoeur writes that despair comes from the self misrelating to itself. The misrelation is not recognizing what the self is, which is synthesis of the infinite and the finite. Hope, conversely, is a proper relating of the self to itself, especially concerning the expectations one has of oneself. Expect too much of self, then one may despair of attaining one’s goals; expect too little of self and one may well despair of ever accomplishing anything at all.  
Hope theory (CR Snyder) is the perceived capacity to derive pathways to desired goals (in relation to mean goods) and to motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways. Here hope is a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy) and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals).
The trilogy of Hope:
Goals - anchor one’s thinking about the future to specific goals
Agency - those capable of pursuing goals, who believe in their own capacity
Pathways - those that can imagine or plan way to achieve goals step by step along a pathway
* *
Gentle Cynicism is a place of tension where to prevent full-blown cynicism while working out or negotiating a context of time requiring a response to move more fully to a place where hope enlarges.  For me gentle cynicism is a realm of practices and mindset where one works with the limitations of a world juxtaposed with the social and moral issues of the day filtered through narrative, poetry, philosophy and social ethic.
On one level gentle cynicism is a response to an overly enthusiastic cultural philosophy that does not take into serious consideration the reality of time and chance, which smacks the face of most people, even those with the best intentions.
The ancient practice of gentle cynicism can be seen in the text of Qohelet.   Here is a recognizable line from this text (also known in its later Greek title of Ecclesiastes).
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. (3.19)
While Qohelet does not completely disavow the idea of cause and effect, he genuinely recognizes that one cannot assume it is that simple. To be sure, the relationship between merit and recompense is chaotic. One is better served by exercising a healthy measure of doubt rather than just simply “having faith” in conventional thinking (cultural and "religious" assumption). Take the example of medicine. Medicine indeed may be a remedy in this sphere of temporality; yet one may be better (or best) served through other unrevealed (hidden) alternatives that are in tune with perhaps more original aspects of what it means to be fully human; e.g., suffering, doubt. Furthermore, what will become of us in the end is the kind of inquiry that begs our attention.
Practicing cynicism today (not the modern concept, but a philosophical way of living with ancient classical and medieval roots) takes the form of a dynamic filter between one’s soul and the world that sifts chaff from wheat; i.e., what is accepted from what is best and what misses the mark from what is actually participating with or working toward God’s Shalom (a vision of wholeness, peace, grace, wellness, wisdom; Greek eudaimonia ).
This kind and quality of cynicism is a way of training the mind and soul (self) to discover and experience more fully the fullness of God's creative, available energy or life, and less the draining emptiness and forthcoming bitterness of the things, ways and scripts of this world that (without this training) will ensnare and pull us into its subtle downward spiral without our knowing it.
Gentle cynicism is a way of moving through (not stepping away from) tensions where there is a complex array of easy-to-get-to thin practices (answers) and ideals on one side; while on the other, profound, thick sources of questions and insights that invite persistent souls toward the way of becoming more fully human.
Huskey, Rebecca K., Paul Ricoeur on Hope: Expecting the Good . New York, Peter Lang Publishing. 2009.
Popova, Maria,  transcript from interview with, “Cartographer of Meaning in a Digital Age” accessed from On Being, 05/14/2015.
Snyder, C. R. (Ed.).  Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications . San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2000.