To all you cynics out there

Cynicism is for cowards.

Someone I don’t even know very well recently challenged me to name three leaders who were true to “public service”, suggesting there weren’t any and that “those who might have the ability and resources to “change our world” put their professional and personal agendas before the need of those they might help, and therefore the world is screwed and there is no reason for anyone to think they can make a difference.”

Cynicism is a form of fear.  You’ve got to have personal courage – among other things, the courage to believe that your actions will make a difference, even if you cannot see or measure that difference, even if that difference does not come to fruition in your own lifetime.

But in trying to name some “heroes” of public service, I balked. I don’t like the idea of heroes.  None of us are heroes.  A couple weeks ago I watched on Netflix Streaming a documentary about Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi-hunter, called “I Have Never Forgotten You“. To me, the most intense part was in the last two minutes, when he is very old, in his 90s, and receiving another award, and he starts to cry and he tells the crowd — don’t give me this award. Don’t make me special.  I am not hero.  We all carry this responsibility. And if you make me a hero, and you don’t carry this responsibility as yours but make it a hero’s responsibility — then this will happen again.

We are each called to our own kind of service. I believe this.  We may ignore service to our neighbor, to our fellow men and women, but we are each called to it — it’s part of the human experience, to help each other.  Every society, every culture, every tradition, every history on earth has it.  So if we each carry some responsibility — well, then it’s up to us.

Our culture is obsessed with heroes — not only with heroes, but with celebrity, and the lines are getting very blurry, and that’s bad for everybody.  I really believe that service, public service, needs to be a deep part of our lives — and the only way to get there is to live it, to look for your own public service, your own generosity and your own responsibility.  And for me, public service is tied intimately to the idea of change: we need to change this world we live in, to make it a better place.

Change requires struggle.  We forget this.  Change in this day and age is accomplished primarily by money changing hands; you go from walkman to CDs to iPods to iPhones in just a few short years and all it costs is money.  We elected a president who urged change by entering our credit card number and clicking. At this time last year, we could not help but feel giddy with the change that was upon us – Barack Obama as the President of the United States! Consequently, when epochal change on an issue as fundamental to our very breathing as climate change fails to materialize in the face of what feels like broad global public consensus, it feels like defeat.

I’m amazed to read about artists like Picasso or Thelonious Monk, who managed to imagine an art beyond the present, seeing beyond their contemporaries and the traditions of the past, striving for something new.  Activists for social change do something similar: through an act of imagination, they see a new world, a brighter future, and then struggle to take us there.  But in this day and age it’s easy to leave imagination behind, indulging in the insanity of our media-saturated world obsessed with every incremental step forward, each new version release.

The start of a new year is a good time to amp up the imagination and decide what kind of world we really want to live in. I am reminded of the tenacity of activists of earlier eras, who imagined a world and then struggled to bring it into being – even when the struggle was apparently fruitless for lifetimes.  We all have our heroes, people we look to for inspiration in our movement-building; one of mine is Ammon Hennacy, a self-described Catholic Anarchist. If that description doesn’t pique your curiosity, I don’t know what will.

The networked nature of the modern world offers new opportunities for movement-building – for bringing the imagined brighter future into reality – but at the same time it seems to threaten the act of imagination with the amount of noise it introduces into our lives.  The struggle is to find ourselves, to take personal courage to heart, to seek out stark beauty.  That’s what work is.

My favorite quote for almost twenty years is from an HG Wells novel (from a book, incidentally, that was given to me by 10th grade Geometry teacher — now that’s Public Service!):

But in these plethoric times when there is too much coarse stuff for everybody and the struggle for life takes the form of competitive advertisement and the effort to fill your neighbor’s eye, there is no urgent demand either for personal courage, sound nerves or stark beauty, and we find ourselves by accident.

HG Wells wrote that in 1909 in the novel Tono-Bungay, 100 years ago.  Today I saw a Teddy Roosevelt quote from the same era that could have been written this morning, it so perfectly described our current political dynamic.  My point is that this is our world and it is what we make of it — and people haven’t changed that much. It’s up to each of us. What kind of world do you want to live in? Go make that world.

Go ahead, be cynical and let fear rule your life.  I’ve got (stuff) to do, worlds to change, and it’s fun, so I’ll see you later.

Cross-posted to

One Response to “To all you cynics out there”

  1. mgh99 Says:

    Thanks, Nicco. I needed this!

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