Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Musings of a Philosophical Bear: On Being Cynical

As much as I want to think getting older hasn't stolen some of my enthusiasm for life, I believe that it is only inevitable that we become cynical over time. We have certain expectations of the way the world should be, and over time we test those theories against reality. If we're any good at reality testing, then some of those notions will prove to be false. This is ultimately how we learn anything. There is the world as it should be and then there's the world as it is. No one who lives in this world long enough can help but have their ideas of the world changed by what stands in front of them. That can only be good if it means we live in a more realistic model of the world as we get older, but it doesn't make it any less painful to go through that process.

We mourn for the young man who has lost his innocence, but why? The innocent are the ones unequipped with the tools necessary to make it through this world. At some point we all have to grow up. If that man has learned those lessons well without becoming bitter or recalcitrant from emotional scars, then he's better off than the innocent boy who has yet to learn those painful lessons. Puppies might be cuter than dogs, but there is beauty in the wise old bloodhound as well. We should recognize and praise hard-earned experience more than we do and stop idolizing naivety.

I've been thinking about cynicism because of a few discussions I've had about faith recently. It came up again when reading Vaughne's article on faith. We've talked about God and faith a little bit, but he (like most people of faith) was unmoved by my logical arguments. There comes a point at which I'm no longer interested in convincing anyone of my position on faith and reason, and I've been clarifying my own position so I can state it clearly if asked. After reading his article I don't think he and I even have the same definition of faith. My definition of faith is knowing or professing something to be true without sufficient evidence or by appealing to emotions and/or authority. His definition of faith seems closer to that of hope or determination in the face of uncertainty. To him faith and hope are the same, while to me they couldn't be farther apart from one another.

Whenever we have this debate he realizes there's no evidence to support his claims, but he still uses anecdotes and pseudo-science as evidence. He'll then turn to his personal experience to claim that his faith is true "for him" which makes no sense because his faith makes claims about the way the world works. Presumably, we both live in the same world his faith professes to know a few things about. I don't claim to know any absolute truths, or even if there is such a thing, but I do believe that some things are more likely to be true than others. My only criteria for determining that is the amount and quality of the evidence to support a position or observation. I'd rather not believe in things that are unsubstantiated. Not everyone thinks that way, but I do. It's funny that most people of faith have pity on me. I may be called jaded or cynical. I used to fight those terms, but now I embrace them.

We need to hope for the best even in the face of the worst. Cynicism can turn into despair if the realistic viewpoint dominates in all aspects of a person's life. Sometimes we need to be a little delusional in order to get by. I will at times engage in wishful thinking. We all need a little optimism or hope to get through life. We don't need to be naive about the world in order to be hopeful. We can know the odds against us and push on anyway. Hope is an acknowledgement of the limits of what we can know, while faith claims to know something that we cannot know and cannot be disproved. Hope is acting in the face of uncertainty. Faith claims knowledge in the face of the unknown. People view the world through a prism of faith are often well-balanced intelligent people who just want to do what is right. But there are inherent dangers in believing in something simply because it feels right or that it's wrong not to believe it. We need to have the best model of reality that we can use. We need to be able to test our ideas and reject the ones that don't work. Faith, by definition, won't let us do that. No matter how good faith feels now, there will come a time when reality tests our worldview. Giving up on our beliefs is hard, even for the most rational scientists among us, but for the person of faith it can be downright devastating. Being cynical, or rational,  means growing comfortable with uncertainty. When the world throws us that curve ball of unexpected change I feel much more sorrow for the naive young man whose model of the world failed him.

I have been thinking about this concept of realism since my mother got into a car accident a few weeks ago. The idea of realism and delusion was brought into stark focus when another car rammed into ours. I immediately had to get myself out of a surreal state of disbelief and remind myself that this is real; a car just rammed us out of no where. Mind you, we were just sitting still at a stoplight, listening to music, and waiting for the light to change. The way that car hit us was something out of a nightmare. I'd experienced many scenes in stories where a person is just driving along and a car smashes into them. In the immediate aftermath of the collision, I had to shake off the notion that it was just a bad dream. I had to quickly to determine if my mother was hurt, if I was hurt, and try to think of what to do next. After I snapped out of it, I saw my mom was still in shock. That shock I'd experienced was in some ways a naive delusion. It was a coping mechanism that helped us get through the immediate situation, but once it had served its purpose it was time to get back to reality.

The real impetus for this article was the reaction of the ambulance driver. When the ambulance arrived and placed my mom inside the back, I was impressed at the professionalism and efficiency of the crew. These people worked their asses off everyday saving people's lives. They navigated through bad situations everyday and showed me a little triumph of humanity. We can't always prevent bad things from happening to us, but when they happen there are people who have dedicated their lives to helping people get out of them. I was looking at how we take care of each other and I was inspired. I had to ask myself how many car accidents had they responded to in the course of a day? Or a week? I tried to strike up a conversation with the ambulance driver after getting into the cab. As it turns out the guy was pretty rude and couldn't be bothered to talk to me. I heard him answering calls on the radio and was just being a total asshole about it. He made some derogatory remarks about a guy who was having chest pains. "Serves him right for smoking" he mumbled  as though he deserved it.

I imagined there was a time in his life when he became a medic in order to help people. Maybe not, but I'd like to imagine that at one point this man was naive about the world. But now he's just going through the motions. It was very disappointing for sure, but does that mean he couldn't still do his job and be an asshole? All those bad experiences that turned this guy into an asshole might have also given him valuable experience that he was now using to make sure my mom was well taken care of in her time of need. All of this is of course speculation on my part. He could have been an asshole from day one, not to mention my assessment of his skills could have been highly skewed because of the emotional nature of the situation and my lack of knowledge of emergency medicine. After I had some time to think about it I'm not so sure that his disposition isn't one I should have expected. The sorts of things he sees on a daily basis would probably do a number on me, but that's one of many reasons I didn't get into his profession. I certainly wished he had a cheerier disposition, but he was still good at his job and that is all we really needed from him at the moment.

If an ambulance crew had come to the scene that was cheery, kind, conversational and polite I would have enjoyed the trip to the hospital little more, but had they also been inexperienced, clumsy, unprofessional , and incompetent I'm not sure how much of a difference that would have made. I use these two extremes to illustrate the point that while cynicism might piss off some people around you, the lessons learned are far more important than the opinions people might have about you. Being cynical doesn't mean you have to be an asshole, I try my best not to be one everyday and most times I succeed. I'm also pretty cynical about the world. I'd like to call myself a realist, but far too many naively believe their view of the world is realistic. I'm also fairly optimistic. I tend to hope for the best even in those situations where I know the odds are against me. I don't need to believe the odds are in my favor to have hope for a good outcome. I just do my best and live in hope.

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