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The Wisdom Beyond Cynicism

We all know people, or possibly even ourselves, that have a cynical outlook on life. Perhaps there is an underlying belief that the world is out to get them/us, or that the ways things are is “unfair” or simply that one has little faith in the human condition. But where does this originate? Are we born cynical or is it something that is created as our life experiences accumulate? 


Jordan Peterson explains that we enter the world with a level of naivety. We all lack the experience, wisdom and judgment, but soon encounter experiences that begin to lift the facade of naivety. Once we have accumulated our own personal experiences of tragedy or unexpected negative outcomes, this naivety dissipates and is often replaced with cynicism as an early stage survival mechanism. Cynicism is defined as, “an attitude characterized by a general distrust of the motives of others. A cynic may have a general lack of faith or hope in people motivated by ambition, desire, greed, gratification, materialism, goals, and opinions that a cynic perceives as vain, unobtainable, or ultimately meaningless.” Does this sound familiar to you?


This cynicism forms in varying degrees, but ultimately the reality begins to set in - that anything and everything ‘could’ fail or result in negative outcomes. It can morph into our own moral validity for our own resentments. Peterson explains that this is the pivotal moment for human development. In this moment of witnessing cynicism, we then have to decide ‘how’ to handle it. We can either walk around the rest of our lives completely immersed in cynicism, with a chip on our shoulder and spiteful resentment in our hearts, OR we can move forward with faith in the inevitable and uncontrollable outcomes. In a way Peterson is suggesting that we need to find a way to be cynical of our own cynicism as a way out of it.


“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  — Oscar Wilde


With courage we are able to move into a new space of viewing the world and our lives. It takes courage to move beyond a pessimistic view on life, because we have to overcome the fear of our newfound awareness of malevolence. Peterson calls the stage of moving beyond cynicism - wisdom. We are no longer in denial about the existence of malevolence in the world and accept this facet of life and move forward. 


“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear.”

― Mark Twain

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