Battle-dance with cynicism

I was sunshine.

Growing up, I have so many memories of ways people would be buoyed by my enthusiasm, comment on my smile, remark on my positivity. And I was also boxed in and blinded. There was so much I could be happy about. When I think about it, it isn’t that there wasn’t hardship. There were car accidents, fights, church splits, and death. But I was pretty unflappable. With hindsight, what I knew about the world and experienced was limited. I usually say I grew up with unconditional love in a box.

And then, I began to question and to be confronted about my beliefs, my identity, my faith, my abilities, my personality, and my privilege. And I also began to love the search, the unwinding, the people I met who were not like me, and even - over time - what my own pain and suffering opened up for me in the lives of students, clients, friends, and loved ones.

I found new mantras and guiding quotes:

  • “The breaking of idealism is a gift from God. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Let me see clearly
  • “Democracy is tyranny without awareness.” - Arnold Mindell

And for the last several years, I soaked up and was doused by worlds of pain, experience, tension, promise, resistance, revolution, imagination, wisdom, shallowness, ego, love, joy, tenderness, betrayal, death, birth, grief, power, and powerlessness.

Each emotion lives within stories of people, places, networks, systems, oppression, and opportunities. And I don’t think I can even yet conceive of what it all means, how it has impacted me, or the gratitude I have for every experience.

But last week, I found myself confronted and disarmed as I shared my current battle-dance with cynicism as I spoke with wise elder and newer friend Jon Madian.

He shared his understanding that, "Cynicism is the last vestige of the ego. It rises when the soul is not able to trust. It is, of course, the only rationale response to looking around at the world. But once there and present you can either work through the pain and sadness or be in the business of criticizing creation."

When the soul is not able to trust...

Waves of sadness hit me then and now. Because I wanted and still want that rational response. And I think I learned this week that I’m stuck there. Not just today, but at least for a season.

I know I don’t want the escape hatch. I know there are lessons I am and need to learn. And I know I’m off kilter. The quotes that used to roll-off easy no longer ring true. Not just the ones above but even more cherished trope-guides.

Reading this morning from Wendell Berry’s What ARE People For? I found, I think, some next steps in this dance-battle:

“It seems plain that the voice of our despair defines our hope exactly; it seems, indeed, that we cannot know of hope without knowing of despair, just as we know joy precisely to the extent that we know sorrow. . . What we do need to worry about is the possibility that we will be reduced, in the face of the enormities of our time, to silence or to mere protest.”

Sorrow from the death of loved ones and my parents divorce opened me to a world of interior knowing and joy and the ability to sit and be with others in pain.

Now, maybe, this dance-battle with cynicism and despair will bring some new understanding about myself in a world I’m painfully in love with.


Note: Following my original posting of this, I received a rich note of exchange from Jon that I'd like to add here because of what it further offers:

"On reflection, my sense is that cynicism isn't anymore the last vestige of the ego (wish for control) than materialism, superiority, specialness, inferiority, entitlement, narcissism, or a dozen other defenses including defiance. So while I believe you quoted me correctly, likely I was using grandiosity (another vestige of the ego) to give more weight to my words... So rather than the last, perhaps we could just say, cynicism is another vestige or expression of a struggling ego... simply for the sake of deflating my rhetoric, and not creating an indefensible hierarchy in anyone's mind."  - Jon

The difficulty of holding contradictions

I love the tone and maybe half the content of Paul Krugman’s provocative and trending post, “Knowledge Isn’t Power.”  It is refreshing because he attempts to unwind real diversions and names a kind of national pundit syndrome that maybe really should make a diagnostic manual between naivety and narcissism.

And (speaking of narcissism) I can’t help but like the way his naming of the education-centric story mirrors the one I tried to layout in this TEDx talk.

But as a student of our national discourse on education committed to addressing inequality of opportunities and outcomes, I come to different conclusions.

Krugman isn’t wrong on his title. And he isn’t wrong on his statistics about the growing concentration of wealth not mapping to educational outcomes. But he’s wrong to limit the power of education to create power. Just as he rejects conventional wisdom of the pundit class, we also need to reject conventional wisdom on the purpose of education and what skills, habits, and qualities we teach.

We have a long history of educating at cross-purposes and we have for too long been training a nation to be employees, consumers, and marginal voters. If we think about schools as centers of community, we can imagine taking the tone and spirit of Krugman’s piece (and for that matter pair with David Brooks writing on empathy and Ta-Nehisi Coates on reparations) and the work of refocusing our national discourse and reimagining and repurposing what happens in schools and our communities is pretty clear.

These contradictions - between the roles, of poverty, civic agency, and education - are not easy to hold and certainly have limits as talking points. But if power is the goal - let’s not miss what knowledge and experiences give access to it.

We have to have a larger national imagination and find ways to weave rather than slice our way through the complexities of making America less unequal.

I thought democracy was a good word

I was holding a small group breakout session in Puerto Rico with educators and organizers when it happened.

Domingo challenged the entire premise of the conversation by saying in accented English far better than any Spanish I still possess, "I don't think democracy is the right word or even the right concept. And I'm not sure I want, no offense Scott, to hear you talk about it coming from the United States. You have used democracy as a weapon to colonize and to control - and I'm skeptical about linking it to the kinds of educational practices we want and need. It could be dangerous."

And while I tried hard to listen and not be defensive and also keep Domingo and others engaged, inside his words rang many bells. In that moment I was the director of an organization that positioned democracy as a foil to looking at failed education reforms and the lack of student, parent, educator, and community voice in both decisions and the vision of public education.

Domingo's critique was not unfamiliar to me, but it was more personal. Did I have room inside myself to consider abandoning democracy as a guiding premise? For how and for whom education is arranged? As the guiding ideal for communities big and small?

That moment took place in 2012 and I've been pondering and exploring the questions ever since.