My name is Anderson Williams and I am a recovering cynic. Like any recovery, mine is a daily battle. I do, however, believe that cynicism has its place in a healthy society and my recovery is about learning to use it properly as a tool and not allowing it to become a way of being. It needs to be a skill, not a habit or a mindset.
My recovery began slowly and I estimate it began in about 2002. Paradoxically, this was the same time that my cynicism also expanded and reached new heights perhaps never previously recorded in human history (I suppose I inversely reached my proverbial rock-bottom). It was the time that I moved back to the community where I grew up. It was the time that I began working with young people. My cynicism protected me; it softened reality. It tempered my anger and frustration about the educational and community circumstances my young people faced every day, the same conditions I had one foot in growing up, but was privileged enough to have one foot out of as well. During this time:
Racism became more real to me than it had ever been when once diverse neighborhoods were calling the police to voice concerns about a black kid walking home from school on their sidewalks in front of their houses – perhaps his pants were sagging too low (see there it goes again!).
Classism was more real than I had ever understood when I struggled to convince a bank to open savings accounts for my youth who were part of a financial literacy program, demonstrably working a job, and had the capacity to save.
Justice as a universal concept quickly showed itself as variable justices when I knew students who were removed from their school in handcuffs and charged because of a fist fight when my private-school years told me this was at worst a cause for demerits. One student entered the justice system, the other went to Saturday school.
Institutional and internalized oppression became frames for understanding what was really happening when my high schoolers were reading and writing at middle school levels (and making straight A’s) and when they realized this, assumed it was their failure, and just another example of the failure of their family, their neighborhood, and even their race.
As my anger and cynicism grew, my hope for something else was honestly less real than it had ever been.
And yet, my job (and the frame of my entire upbringing) was to help change these systems and to help engage young people in an awakening of sorts to demonstrate that the status quo was not their determination, that they had power and choices and could take action on their own behalf. How in the world could I do this and have cynicism rule my own perspective and outlook? Better yet, how dare I!
Over the last eight years, my recovery has been slow and I have relapsed consistently (in fact, writing this is pushing me that way!). A couple of wars, widespread profiling of immigrants, an economic collapse, Hurricane Katrina, and the suicide of my father haven’t helped. But my commitment stands: I will learn to control my cynicism.
A few weeks back, I received some subtle reinforcement as I listened to someone presenting about the concept of optimism. My cynic, of course, dismissed this immediately, but in a momentary display of control over my habit, I continued to listen. You see, I understood optimism in terms of a “sunny” outlook on things, a sort of spit-shined and easily packaged version of hope perhaps. And, if you really knew about the real world and were courageous enough to face it, optimism was just a little too Pollyanna for reality.
But, in this talk, optimism was described to me as a skill, something to be practiced, something that got easier with practice, and something that was required for one to have any genuine sense of personal efficacy. Additionally, optimism even appears to have the potential to change brain chemistry and improve things like cognition, memory and attention. In other words, optimism is far more than a sunny outlook on things.
Optimism is systemic change for the self, at least for my self. As such, it begs the question, how do we achieve systemic change in regard to race, class, educational equity, justice and so forth, if our own individual wiring and attitude reinforce the woeful status quo over an optimistic vision of a better future?
Perhaps it is time to deepen our understanding of optimism as a skill and not merely a transitory attitudinal condition, or worse an opiate that helps us avoid harsh reality. How can we deliberately practice optimism as a skill? How can we assess mastery? How can we ensure that optimism, with its multivalent physical, social, and emotional benefits, is something we teach and commit to as we would literacy or mathematics? What if we treated it with the same concern as our health and nutrition (or not - sorry, my cynic just jumped back in on this one)? But, you get the point.
If I am ever going to manage my cynicism and, in turn, use it effectively as a strategy, I realize I must also become a disciplined and skilled optimist.
As I battle with myself every day, with the push-pull of cynicism and optimism, at least now I know that it pays to be optimistic that I can actually win.