It’s Halloween week and everybody loves a good ghost story. Or, if you’re theologically inclined, a good exorcism story. What’s more frightening than a physical manifestation of pure evil through an ordinary person? And while we’re at it, why are all the famous Hollywood exorcisms of girls (i.e. Regan in The Exorcist and Emily in The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Is it the juxtaposition of darkness over the perception of innocence?) Let’s save a full-blown exposition of demonology for another post.
For now, let me propose something scarier than possession. It’s not nearly as dramatic. It’s much more subtle and, because of that, would never make for a very good film. I know people who don’t believe in evil. But some of those same individuals acknowledge the existence of darker corners within their own hearts. Such darkness, left unchecked, evolves over time. It chokes joy out of the spirit, transforms hope into despair, and hardens healthy skeptics into cold cynics. This is truly insidious. It’s exponentially more unnerving to me than levitating adolescents, pea soup projectile vomiting, and spinning heads.
I’ve recently wondered if I might be due for an exorcism of my own. Not from a literal demon, but a metaphorical one — just good, old run-of-the-mill cynicism. My friend Abdu Murray says, “A skeptic is somebody who won’t believe something unless there’s adequate evidence to back it up. A cynic is somebody who won’t believe something even when there is. You can be cynic in attitude and say, ‘I won’t believe anything you say because of your position.’”
It may be time for me to admit that my cynicism is not only intellectual, but spiritual, too. Why am I so prone to cynicism? The easy answer is because it’s easy. There’s no risk required to stand on the sidelines and throw rocks.
Theodore Roosevelt said,
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Yes, that’s all fine and good for the rough-riding historic president. But ours is a generation still looking for an actual arena in which to fight. And failing to find it, we settle for virtual battles that require neither sweat nor blood nor dust. Cynicism convinces us it is better not to play than to lace up only to lose the game. It’s easy to groan about what’s wrong with system, and then dream, only dream, of how we would do it better.
You know why I drift towards cynicism? Because I’m arrogant, I’m cowardly, and I’m lazy. I don’t want to hope because being disappointed is exhausting. I don’t want to work on this relationship because at some level I think I’m better than you. I don’t want to step into conflict because I don’t want my inadequacies to be exposed. I don’t want to work on it frankly because it’s exactly that: work. I’d rather cruise Facebook, Twitter, or Netflix for an escape.
Cynicism is a form of self-protection, insulation against rejection and critique.
In his work The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis brilliantly notes,
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
Lewis captures the cynic’s posture well — rail against the word and avoid all entanglements. And in so doing, bypass both risk and reward.
Pastor and author Tim Keller says cynicism is on par with self-righteousness. And the self-righteous never make great friends, team members, leaders, parents, or lovers. That’s why I need an exorcism. Because the scariest things aren’t those beyond me, but those within me.
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