Cynicism or Opticism?

“A case for optimism” is an inspiring video by Tiffany Shlain. She pleas for optimism with a healthy dose of skepticism: which is a “questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts,or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.” Thus, she argues, let’s become an “opticist”. Let’s not be naïve, but let’s focus consciously on the half full glass and see how we can fill it up even further.

The world, in general, has become less violent, but judging from the daily news things seem to have become worse. When we look at negative things all the time, they could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We may become weary and discouraged and act accordingly. We could develop an attitude of cynicism: believing that people are motivated purely by self-interest; we become distrustful of human sincerity or integrity. And we will see the evidence to confirm this worldview everywhere.

Especially if we are tired and stressed-out. If you check your email 26 times an hour – what happens to your adrenaline levels…? Thus, what happens to the way you perceive the world? You get restless, your organism is aroused: it is hurry and fight-or-flight. You notice danger and empty glasses everywhere.

How does Cynicism feel?

For me personally, skepticism can be useful but cynicism is not. It is a place where I don’t like to be. The world feels terrible if I choose to distrust it. It creates a negative mood in which I’m not half as happy nor as fruitful as I can be. I deliver my best contribution when I trust and have faith that even small positive things or processes, might create huge positive outcomes later on or emerge somewhere.
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Residing in cynicism, I feel bad and I am terrible, energy-sucking company. Choosing my Opticist worldview, I feel empowered most of the time. Though, of course, we all have days that we see the empty glass, and yes, shocking terrible things still happen – I’m not blind, nor am I in denial, dumb or naïve.  I choose to trust  because it’s the best for me and the world. It keeps me going so I can contribute my small part.

3 obstructions to Presence

planet-kidThis Opticist attitude somehow evokes a strong response among the cynics – as I discovered in some discussions. The tone even became a bit condescending – someone labeled it “dreaming”. The voice of cynicism probably has the best of intentions: I think it tries to protect you from further disappointments, hurt, and harm.

It started as the voice of common sense that helped you to “get real”. This is the voice of judgment: the first roadblock to being fully present in the here and now – according to Theory U. It helps you categorize the overwhelming world in true-not true, good-bad, etc. Because it can be utterly tiring to have an open mind all the time, judging keeps the world feasible.

But then the judgments turned toxic, you got stuck in them, they took over – and the next thing you knew is you closed your heart. Here’s the second roadblock according to Theory U: the voice of Cynicism. You’ve been hurt, you’ve seen your judgments confirmed, you see the half-empty glass, you feel the negativity of the world and you cope by saying: “Hey, get real, the world is a rotten place. Didn’t I tell you? Get over it!” You condemn the positive-believers who seem naïve, not so well-informed and utterly irritating, from your worldview. Maybe you envy their positive energy, deep down, because that used to feel good.

Underneath cynicism lies the third level: fear. We want to protect ourselves. Don’t want to get hurt again. Don’t want to lose once more. We need some control and security. We need to be safe. The voice of fear may have closed your will. If you’re not willing to open your heart, to open your mind, here is why. Here’s where we need to be courageous, after we have opened our minds (and let other possibilities in and questioned our beliefs) and our hearts (to assume that maybe the world could be positive). Courageously we meet and greet our fears, and see how they tried to keep us safe. We can thank them and let them go.

Courageous Opticists

mandelaI think this is what great people do – and some great leaders did. We lost Nelson Mandela, a truly great man and one of these rare role models. What if Mandela had gotten cynical? And my, did he have every reason to become the most bitter man you’d ever met! He would have turned into an energy-sucking black hole. But he didn’t. That’s why we admire him. Overall, he overcame the three voices that keep you from sensing the present: fear, cynicism and judgment. He forgave his enemies. He collaborated with them to create a better world. I bow my head in awe for this man.
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Look at Pope Francis, who was chosen “person of the year” by Time Magazine. Since taking over at the Vatican, he has urged the Catholic Church not to be obsessed with “small-minded rules” and to emphasize compassion over condemnation in dealing with touchy topics like abortion, gay love, and contraception. He has denounced the world’s “idolatry of money” and the “global scandal” that nearly 1 billion people today go hungry. He practices what he preaches: he’s humble, he listens, he role models the behaviors he wants to see. I am so glad he didn’t get cynical.

We are collectively creating results nobody wants” states Otto Scharmer, the MIT-lecturer who developed Theory U. We currently use 1.5 times Planet Earth and 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day. People are excluded, they experience a lack of meaning and more and more feel depressed. Did Scharmer despair and started zapping TV channels on the couch? No. He started research to find out how change could succeed. He discovered that the quality of results achieved by any system depends on the quality of awareness from which people in the system operate.

Every one of us, famous or not, can make a positive contribution. But only if we believe in it. Together, we create the system’s capacity. There’s not one leader who can do it for us. We have a few great examples – but each human needs to do his or her work.

  • Are you inspired by Opticism?


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Marcella Bremer co-founded this blog and She’s an author and culture & change consultant.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Saira Khan

    This article makes for great self reflection. I’m just floored by the profoundness of it……….
    Amazing read!

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