During the last night of his brief run on The Tonight Show, after being treated by NBC in a way he and his fans considered unfair, Conan O'Brien got serious for a moment and offered some advice to those jaded fans: "Please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism -- it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere." It was a sincere word from a guy known for biting sarcasm.
I've felt the cynicism creeping in over the past week. With all of the nonsense in Washington, it's easy to think we're doomed. The world is going to hell. Falling apart. I'm not alone in that, either. A Reuters poll last week showed 60% of respondents saying things in our country are off on the wrong track. There are times when it feels like cynicism is the only sensible response to the facts. They say you can always choose your attitude, but I'm not really sure. At least not in such a direct way. Pollyanna doesn't work for me; it's disingenuous. Like Judge Judy says, don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining.
So how do we avoid cynicism when it seems like a foregone conclusion?
I've noticed I can make choices that operate upstream from my attitude. Choices about what I pay attention to.
When the Boston bombing happened, I sat at home and watched the news. They played the same few seconds of footage of the bombs going off over and over and over and over again. I kept watching. I have friends who live in that neighborhood. When I'm in Boston visiting them, the reading room of the big public library right there at the end of the marathon route is one of my regular haunts. Our favorite steak place is two doors down from where the second bomb went off. I was fixated on the tragedy. Unable to look away from the news. But at some point I realized I wasn't getting any new information. Cable news does an amazing job of making it feel like you're receiving a constant stream of new, important, relevant information, when in reality there often isn't that much to report. But we keep watching. And so we don't just become aware of the bad things that happen; we meditate on them. We obsess over them. When we watch the same shocking images over and over again, we don't better understand the violence; we simply become attached to it. And then we wonder why we have no hope.
When you pay attention to what you're paying attention to (got that?), you realize your attention is a limited, valuable commodity, like time or energy. How you spend it has consequences for your attitude. It forms your mind. It affects your heart.
So this week, while the news talks incessantly about the dysfunction in Washington, I've been paying attention to other things happening there.
Last year I went to D.C. for a gathering of leaders who believe in a Middle East where Israelis and Palestinians, Christians and Muslims and Jews and people of no faith at all, can live together in peace. It was an extraordinary group of people. Many of them either live in the Middle East or have spent a lot of time there. They're painfully aware of the harsh realities. But they're fiercely hopeful. One night we went to a dinner at the Capitol. I ended up sitting right next to Grover Norquist, famous (or infamous, depending on your political persuasion) conservative who holds politicians to the fire for raising taxes. (By the way, I can vouch firsthand that he was sporting neither a halo nor devil's horns.) At the table next to ours was Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to the U.S. Congress. (Again, neither halo nor horns.) Pick virtually any political issue and you would likely find those two on opposite sides. But when it came to the Middle East, an issue that is famously, intensely divisive, there they were, working together, breaking bread together, along with small town pastors like me. It was remarkable. In a town filled with obfuscation and conflict, I was in a room brimming with clear-minded, courageous visions of peace.
This past week, while the government was shutting down, another gathering like that one was happening right there in Washington. I couldn't be there because of priorities at Granger, but I turned my attention to updates coming from friends who were. More courageous bridge-building. More faith leaders from across the theological spectrum, political leaders from both sides of the partisan divide, working toward a Middle East that looks less like hell and more like heaven. The more I read about what was happening in those meetings -- via blogs and tweets and Instagram posts -- and the more I prayed for them, the more hopeful I became. I was paying attention to a better story. But good luck finding that story on cable news.
Those peacemakers aren't suffering from naivete. They know something is terribly, tragically wrong. But it's possible to be aware of what's wrong without believing it has to stay that way.
Cynicism is the unholy marriage of the observation that something is wrong and the belief that it can't change. And that belief is shaped by what we pay attention to.
We should be concerned about the dysfunction in Washington. It's hurting people. People who count on government programs to help with things like child care are scrambling for alternative solutions. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are going without pay. Our economy would surely be in better shape if Washington policy makers could find their stride and create a predictable, dependable environment for growth. But cynicism doesn't equip us to make a difference. Worrying isn't the same thing as working.
Paul wrote to the Philippians: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."
There are better stories being told out there, even if the news isn't telling them. (I may be biased, but I think those stories often have something to do with Jesus, whether He is making Himself known in a Church or in a neighborhood or in a dining room on Capitol Hill, but that's another post.) And when I feel cynicism creeping in, I want to redirect my attention to the lovely, excellent things that are part of our world.
Cynicism doesn't lead anywhere. But there are leaders worth following and stories worth telling, and I want to pay attention to them. Especially during times like this.
What are you paying attention to lately that gives you hope?