Optimistic Cynic

Choosing to be happy sounds so corny, but I am convinced it’s the only way not to get crushed under the weight of this hard, fallen world.

How one become happy in a world filled with imperfect human beings, and while being one yourself, will differ from person to person. Some use religion. Some decide to ignore negative information. Others find that dwelling on the bad helps them cope. Still others might drown the tragedy of being alive with distractions, either electronic or chemical.

I get that. I really do. A lot of what people do depends on their fundamental views of human nature. This deep stuff, but so much of one’s world-view depends on their answer to the following question: are human beings intrinsically good, or intrinsically bad?

Note well that I did not say “evil,” but “bad.”

People can either be perfected here on Earth and it is society that corrupts us, or we are born broken somehow and need to structure society, as well as work on structuring ourselves, to mitigate these tendencies.

In other words, society has to improve, or you have to improve.

This is really a simplified version, but it helps see how each of these basic assumptions about the nature of being can influence nearly everything, from political affiliations to religious beliefs to the very kind of art one creates and enjoys.

I am clearly in the second camp–that human beings are fundamentally bad and have to be trained to be good–and yet I find this a pretty empowering view of things. In fact, gaining a greater understanding of this view, and treating others and myself in accordance with it, has helped me become happier over time:

  • We are all imperfect, but we can all improve;
  • There will never be a Utopia or a heaven on Earth;
  • We all need to be kind to each other and ourselves because we’re all broken; and
  • I’m never surprised or disappointed when people, from the individual to the species level, makes the wrong choice.

Human beings will never learn the hard lessons from history. That is a fact. This is pessimistic, but pessimism about human nature doesn’t have to translate into being a miserable person.

I have come to consider myself as an optimistic cynic. I have no illusions about humanity’s ability to navigate terrible crises before the happen and head things off. This isn’t how the overwhelming majority of us operate, personally or societally. We have a massive inborn self-destructive streak, and we’re really good at sharing this dark tendency with society at large.

But, and here’s the weird part, we’re still here. We haven’t annihilated each other from the face of the planet, despite our best efforts. Yes, many peoples have been extincted through deliberate genocide, or by being conquered and breeded out of existence, or even inadvertently through diseases. Evil stuff like this still happens, and that’s the tendency we see among those people who can’t cope with the burden of being alive: they lash out at existence itself, whether they’re a mass shooter in a movie theater or school, or a dictator directing their anger at “those people over there.”

And yet, civilization exists in many parts of the world. And it’s actually quite nice. Believe it or not, lots and lots of human beings frown upon destructive, evil behaviors. This would not be possible for as long as its been going on (albeit, in a still woefully low proportion of the global human population) if this fallen nature of humanity couldn’t be mitigated.

Our rules don’t perfect us. They keep us free, from the harmful actions of the government, from the harmful actions of our fellow citizens, and often from the harmful actions of ourselves. Laws aren’t magic, but they do express the values of a society. And I’m much happier living in a society where things like rape and murder are punishable by life imprisonment or even death than a world that tries to legislate these dark impulses from our basic nature.

Because that is never going to happen.

So that’s they cynic part of “optimistic cynic.” The optimistic part comes into play because I actually do have faith that humanity will swerve when it needs to to avoid the ultimately fatal mistake.,

Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example. That could have been a disaster. But at the end of the day, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union really wanted to die in a nuclear war. You can apply that sentence to the entirety of the Cold War.

So does being an “optimistic cynic” rely chiefly on the idea of mutually assured destruction?

Kind of, yeah.

It’s no secret that tit-for-tat is the most effective way to stop the behavior of an opponent who is violating a norm. It galls when one side plays dirty. It’s even more galling when the side that’s in the right decides to be “above it all” and not retaliate in kind. This is folly, this is demoralizing, and this leads to ultimate defeat.

You have to push back, early and often, and shove the dirty player’s own medicine down their throat until they stop. And when they stop, you stop. But if they keep going, you keep going.

Eventually someone will recognize the folly of the current course and stop. The car will screech to a halt right at the cliff’s edge. Much sweat will be wiped off of many brows. Those that refuse to stop will be small in number and, while destructive, will be defeated and other wise managed by the victors. And here, the term “victor” means “sane.”

Crisis averted.

That’s what I believe will happen.

It may take years to get to this point. And things, as they always do, will get worse. I may not even live to see this to completion, whether I expire through old age or for other, far less preferable reasons.

Butt that’s how I see the world. And I’m all the happier for it.

Embrace your inner pessimist. Your cynicism will set you free.


  1. I don’t agree with all of this, but it’s hardly surprising. I think most people are good, but that entropy drags our lazy selves into bad behaviors that hurt us, personally and as a society.

    I think it is possible that there are evil people, but I think, if that’s so, they are rare and create larger effects than their puny numbers deserve.

    I read a study that said, basically, nothing predicts one’s odds of being a conservative vs. a liberal, politically, than one’s position on this good vs. bad question. You and I are proving the authors right in our opinions here. 🙂

    Keep fighting the good fight!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hah! I will try!

      I’m with you: evil people are small but disproportionately effective. And they paint the rest of humanity with an unfairly broad brush.

      It sounds like we do agree on the good vs. bad as opposed to evil, but not the inherent nature of man. I think most of us are MADE good and STAY that way, but without instruction I’m not sure that’d happen.

      And the question then becomes, “Where does the instruction come from?”


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