Trolling the Web recently, I found Rick Banyan’s site for “kinder, gentler” cynics. I hoped he’d help me get through this season of jingles and fears that we’re not buying enough stuff to make Christmas profitable for retailers. Banyan says sarcastically that we “emerge from the holidays 10 pounds heavier and several hundred dollars lighter.” Yet he allows that he appreciates Christmas: He calls it “an annual opportunity to rejuvenate our battered souls.”
It’s hard not to be cynical when the season gets mixed up with negative campaign advertisements. They remind me of a saying of the wit Oscar Levant: “He'll double-cross that bridge when he comes to it.” But political consultant Peggy Noonan warns us not to fall so easily into cynicism: “It’s unrealistic and kind of cowardly because it means you don’t have to try.”
When I’ve lost a case in court or a politician I’ve supported has gone down to defeat, I recall Noonan’s comment and find it cuts short an easy cynical reaction. It gets me beyond the notion that all I have to do is unleash a scathing attack -- preferably humorous -- on the forces that whipped me. t’s a shield against world-weariness, which would otherwise leave me aralyzed and less effective than I might be if I shed my contempt for those who whooped up on me.
Cynics conclude -- probably from experience -- that self-interest is the primary motive of human behavior. Cynics assume that we never act out of sincerity, idealism or altruism.
That is not the world I experience or want to live in. I spent time in Ecuador last summer with 15 people -- some as young as 24, the oldest 75 -- from the First Congregational Church of Greeley, Colo. We were there to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, and while the desire to help others motivated us, most of us felt that we got far more out of the experience than the people we helped. All of us had volunteered like this before, and we’d come back for one reason: We needed to rejuvenate our battered souls.
We were joined in Ecuador by a group of 15 young Americans from inner-city high schools in North Carolina. A family from that state paid for their trip as a memorial to a son and brother who’d died in a car accident the year before. The circumstances of the boy’s death could make anyone despair or become cynical. In this case, it turned out far differently. The car the teenager was driving when he was killed was new, a gift he’d earned. His parents said they’d told the boy he’d have to “do something for somebody” before he could have a car. What he chose to do was accompany his family to Ecuador to help build houses. The experience, his family said, changed him for the better, but then tragically, his life ended in a crash in the car he loved.
After months of confronting their depression over the loss, the family decided to do something positive: They established a foundation in his name to fund life-changing opportunities for kids who had never traveled beyond their neighborhoods. Was their memorial self-serving? Well, what if it was? Its lasting effect was to help disadvantaged kids. After turning the impossible into the possible in Ecuador, the kids might just be empowered to change circumstances in their own communities.
Here at home in this season of declining daylight, it’s difficult not to feel discouraged about the presidential hopefuls who spend much of their time practicing politics as the art of the possible. In my idealistic moments -- and I confess I have a few -- I think of politics as the art of the impossible. Anyone can do the possible. Who in our lives has done the impossible? Jesus Christ, Gandhi and Martin Luther King all had their way of creating a better reality against long odds.
I’d like us to cast cynicism aside for at least a fortnight. Let’s try to see beyond the sniping and dirt-slinging that passes for political debate. In our own lives, we can choose to do what we set out to do to make things better -- whether or not it’s considered practical or possible. We can even attempt the impossible. And once more, the world may never be the same again.
Russ Doty is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He heads New World Wind Power and is also executive director of the Green Electricity Buying Cooperative in Billings, Montana.