by Shawn Tucker:
In one of my first semesters at BYU after my mission, I took an American Literature course, and one of our first readings was Jonathan Edwards' Personal Narrative. Oh, and I hated it. I remember getting very upset at the Calvinist Edwards and at his faulty ideas about God, salvation, predestination, and agency. I'm sure I probably went on quite a rant about it in class and to anyone who'd listen. My passionate dislike for Edwards' writing may have been connected with my idea that he was at least a stumbler in the darkness of the Apostasy if not one who, as the Lord told Joseph, drew near to God with his lips but whose heart was in reality far away.
As I had a habit from mission life of praying about just about everything, one day I found myself ranting to the Lord about Edwards. And when I did I felt God quietly yet sternly rebuke me. As I listened I felt the Lord make it clear that I had been unfair to Edwards, that I had approached his writing with a very negative predisposition, and that I had magnified all of the worst I could find and discounted or dismissed anything good in his Personal Narrative. Being thus rebuked caused me to re-read Edwards. The second reading, as you can imagine, brought to light a wonderful text written by a man using all of his powers to understand his relationship with God. I still treasure Edwards' writings, but what I treasure even more is what this experience taught me about cynicism.
What I mean by cynicism here is an unfair examination of anything, unfair because of an overarching, negative predisposition and a willingness to magnify the worst and disregard anything that might be good. When I cynically approached Edwards' account, it was as if I set out a series of landmines. Each mine is triggered by a belief or a view, and when Edwards' text went against my beliefs or views, the mine would explode. With my views or beliefs duly laid out, and with Edwards unaware of those views, it was inevitable that he would roll over them.
During the remainder of that American Literature course, I ended up examining both great literature and my own responses to it. I was surprised by how readily I could be quite cynical. Toward the end of the semester we read Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony. This novel describes a nebulous group of "destroyers" in this manner:
The destroyers: they work to see how much can be lost, how much can be forgotten. They destroy the feeling people have for each other ... Their highest ambition is to gut human beings while they are still breathing, to hold the heart still beating so the victim will never feel anything again. When they finish, you watch yourself from a distance and you can't even cry—not even for yourself. (229)
This quote struck me about how dangerous my cynicism was. My cynical examination destroyed the feeling of connection between me and various authors. In losing this sense of connection, I lost compassion for others, and that brought a sense of isolation and of being alone in a hostile world. Silko beautifully describes the results of a mindset dominated by cynicism.
I wish I could say that I've grown out of my cynicism. I would love to say that I no longer have landmines buried all around me. But every Sunday when I go to church I hear at least a few of them blow up. Someone here might say something about a doctrine or teaching or political idea that I disagree with or find foolish and BAM!, there goes the explosion. And I will add that following LDS blogs and other social media can actually make this worse. Sometimes an unsuspecting blogger will roll right across a landmine. Sometimes I will read something, find it insightful, and then notice when people run afoul of this new view or belief landmine. Fast and Testimony Meeting, or "Open Mic Sunday" can bring explosion after explosion.
Since it doesn't look like I will get rid of my landmines soon, my goal is to transform them into something useful. When I feel an explosion, I try to reflect on it. I ask myself why that seems so powerfully wrong or foolish to me. I also ask about what this says about me. I try to learn from my Edwards experience, seeing how each new experience might just reenact that one. I listen for the rebuke and then I re-think whatever has been said. I note my cynicism, my landmines, so that I can recognize them and limit or control their explosive effects before I start to forget and to lose my connection with others, otherwise my compassion may stop even if my physical heart keeps beating.
I wonder sometimes if a similar challenge with cynicism isn't a problem for others as well. I seem to see people who make comments or write blog posts or record podcasts that are dramatic landmine explosions. The cynicism seems especially clear when broad conclusions are drawn from scant evidence and errors or mistakes are magnified to the point that they eclipse any mitigating evidence or goodness. An example of such cynicism, for me, is when I hear someone say "Well, it all comes down to …" or "We all know that what this is really about is …" or "The only thing that they really want is …," followed by some simple yet clearly nefarious and abusive "hidden agenda."
I hasten to add that we should examine everything carefully, but I believe it is Paul Ricœur (and perhaps Bruce Hafen) who affirms the value of both sympathy and suspicion. When suspicion overwhelms and robs sympathy, transforming itself into cynicism, it seems that disconnection, impatience, and rage too often replace faith, hope, and compassionate fellow-feeling.
Shawn Tucker grew up with amazing parents and five younger, wonderful siblings. He served as a missionary in Chile during the Plebiscite and the first post-dictatorship election. After his mission, he attended BYU, where he married ... you guessed it ... his wife. They both graduated, with Shawn earning a BA in Humanities. Fearing that his BA in Humanities, which is essentially a degree in Jeopardy, would not be sufficient, Shawn completed graduate work in the same ... stuff ... at Florida State University. He currently teaches at Elon University in North Carolina. He and ... you guessed it ... his wife have four great children. Twitter: @MoTabEnquirer. Website: motabenquirer.blogspot.com.
Image credit: Snipergirl's Reality 2: The World to the Cynical (used with permission).