The man answered the phone and I introduced myself. I asked him if he would be willing to discuss an article he had written several years before and which, I thought, was one of the best pieces I had ever read about leadership.
“Why do you want to talk about that?” he asked.
I shared my opinion of the piece.
“I wrote that when I was still naïve,” he said. “I thought I could make things better.”
Then he asked about my work. I told him.
“Well,” he sighed, “if you think you can make people more ethical, you are wasting your time. You will figure it out eventually.”
He had become a cynic.
The word “cynic,” comes from the Greek word for dog. It refers to someone who has given up faith in humanity and believes people act only out of selfish interests.
Cynics generally come their point of view through the experience of severe disappointment. They often start out enthusiastic and hopeful. They pour themselves into some purpose or project, they make sacrifices, and things fail to turn out the way they expect. The world that had looked so bright and full of promise turns out to be a trap. They will not make that mistake again.
Years ago, I heard Parker Palmer talk about his memories of Robert Greenleaf, the founder of the servant leadership movement. He reflected on Greenleaf’s deep and enduring sadness and remarked how people who only read Greenleaf’s more popular writings are often surprised by that. They imagine him as perpetually cheerful. They assume anyone who encourages others to a life a service and commitment to the common good must be filled with happiness. But that is not the case.
The truth is that those who are most deeply committed to the common good and who work tirelessly to improve their organizations, neighborhoods, or communities over a long period of time generally experience similar proportions of both joy and sorrow. They tend to be motivated by a powerful vision of a better future and and at the same time profoundly sorrowed by how difficult it is to turn that vision into reality.
Sorrow, however, is not despair. In fact, it seems to me that those who find a way to accommodate sorrow within an ongoing commitment to the good are those who are most likely to avoid despair over the long haul. They are people who know how to celebrate successes as well as grieve failures; they understand that one day does not make a summer.
Such people also understand that goodness—like truth and beauty—is a transcendent value. It is never fully realized in any particular action or outcome but is instead an ideal, something continually aimed at but never finally attained.
All our actions fall somewhere on a scale of approximation, more or less good or bad. Even the most celebrated victories fall short of accomplishing everything hoped for; they contain some admixture of good and bad, success and failure.
Our favored politician wins the election. We are cheered for a moment, thinking, finally, things are going to improve, only to find our hero lacks the skill or courage to enact the promised reforms. We get the contract our team has been working on all year, only to discover that fulfilling our part of the deal requires valued resources we had not anticipated.
The wise person, knowing that pleasure and pain are linked together by an inviolable bond, seeks to cultivate the virtue of hope rather than an attitude of optimism. Whereas optimism consists in expecting that the future will turn out in a particular, predictable way, hope is simple confidence that there is goodness in the world and that it will not be extinguished no matter how dismal things may seem at the time.
“What do you hope to accomplish with your columns?” a friend asked the other day.
I did not know quite how to answer that question, except to say that I hope they do some good.
That hope is not grounded in any particular expectation that something I say will start a movement or even change people’s minds about some important social issue.
That hope is instead grounded in the conviction that every sincere effort to understand ourselves and the world is worth the effort because people, despite frequent evidence to the contrary, are inherently good.
The effort to keep going, to keep contributing to the betterment of one’s little corner of the world, is not a product of false hope, it is a product of humility, of the feeling that if only I do my part others will do theirs.
“Up again old heart,” says Emerson, “there is victory yet for all justice.”
He is surely right, if only because justice, wherever it occurs, is a victory in itself.
Every once in a while, when we stop insisting that things turn out the way we want them to and just focus on doing good in whatever capacity we possess, something incredible happens. And the cynics are proved wrong.