February 5, 2010
A young friend tells me that he has become cynical–a pessimist, which leads me to wonder, what do these words mean? Am I, for example, cynical–a pessimist? If I am–as I sometimes think I am–isn’t it because I have unrealistic expectations of life and world? In other words, I can be cynical only because I am, at bottom, an optimist.
As children, we all are optimists. As children, we all expect perfection of the world. A story John Updike tells about his childhood gives concrete illustration of what I have in mind. Updike was a precocious child and close to his mother. They seemed to know and anticipate each other’s intimate needs. Young Updike finished a sketch. He showed it to his mother, who was reading a book. Rather than putting down her book to admire the sketch, his mother looked slightly irritated by the interruption. Big deal, you say! Yet it was a big deal to the boy, so big that Updike, the grown man and famous author, still remembers the incident. Against that one maternal slight, all the attentiveness his mother bestowed upon him faded into the background.
Many of us are like that even as adults. Certainly I am. In the course of an ordinary day, I encounter numerous acts of thoughtfulness and courtesy. Do I feel grateful? Not at all. I take the world’s perfection for granted, and feel irritated by the smallest departure from it, such as the waitress’s insincere greeting, the driver’s failure to yield, my colleague’s perfunctory “hi.” If I am cynical, it is because I do not meet with perfection at every turn.
John Updike and I are of the professional middle-class. We are spoilt. The poor certainly do not live with our unreal expectations. Yet the poor, too, are optimists. They are optimists of the present moment and of what may happen in the next half-hour. Their optimism is, however, based on a deeply pessimistic view of life and is the outcome in reverse of what the middle-class experience. In the life of the poor, which is burdened by uncertainty and hardship, it is the small good things that stay in the memory and lighten the day. The poor may feel bitter, but not cynical, never having been dazed by middle-class illusions of perfection.