How to Combat Fear and Cynicism
We have a friend who sees the world in a pessimistic light. This person is highly suspicious of people and situations, and sees, as well as experiences negativity at most turns. Why is this and what does it mean? What can be done to help?
I am not so sure it’s a question of nature, but of nurture—or lack thereof. We live in a world where fear and cynicism are running sky high, where traditional institutions of faith and culture are breaking down, and where our dislocation from nature and the natural rhythms of life leave our souls a little pent up and crazy. Suspicion and pessimism are pretty good defenses against a world gone mad. But the great spiritual teachings of the ages have suggested a radically counter-intuitive response. When this same question came up in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov, the wise elder Fr. Zossima said in response, “Go help someone. Reach out to a brother or sister in need. Feed the hungry, heal the sick—(or at least, take on your small share of the task)—and then, only then, will you come to know that the world is trustworthy and God is real.” His point is tough, but true: First the eye of the heart must open, and only then will one see confirmation in the external world. As long as suspicion and pessimism are being projected, suspicion and pessimism are what the cosmos will confirm.
So how to break the vicious cycle? Fr. Zossima’s advice is still as true today as it was in his time: look for a chance to serve. Volunteer in a shelter, a food pantry, a nursing home: it will soften your heart. Spend time in nature, in a playground with young children; sing!; read love poetry; hang out with the “good, the true and the beautiful,” however they speak to you. The problem is that we are starving—all of us, really—for the energy of beauty and goodness so long absent from our contemporary cultural experience. But we have to start making these energies ourselves—from within ourselves. That is not only an individual task; it is our collective human task and our planet will thank us for it.
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada.