Stephen Colbert on Cynicism

10th December 2012

“Cynicism is not wisdom. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but cynicism is a self-imposed blindness. You put the blinders on yourself to protect yourself from a world that you think might hurt you or disappoint you. Be a fool. Believe things will be good. Better to be hurt.”

I heard Stephen Colbert say this on Oprah’s Next Chapter, and found it striking. I agree, but “better to be hurt” is so rough to put into practice. Do you think cynicism can be a function of wisdom? Where do you find yourself on the jaded spectrum?

(Photo by Mark Seliger)

24 thoughts on “Stephen Colbert on Cynicism

  1. Kate

    I love love love that! Me, I’m about as jaded as a 4 year old, and today is my 48th birthday. In Oprah-speak, what I know for sure is that our attitude is everything; that whether you think life is beautiful or you think it’s sh*t, you’re right. We manifest what we believe to be true.

  2. Heidi A. Seely

    My husband and I have been discussing holiday travel plans all day. He keeps saying things like “But we could get stuck in Pheonix and have to drive to California”. My response is “Yeah! Road Trip! Lets see how much Dr. Pepper our 4 year old can drink before he combusts!”
    Colbert’s setiment fits my perspective perfectly. I would much rather believe things will be good than bad.

  3. Jen

    I love this! In my last church I was called to be with a parishioner, in her 90s, as she died. She took her last breath as her husband whispered his love to her. Later, her sons told me her attitude was “trust, trust, and trust again.”

  4. misstraceynolan

    At the beginning of his first Presidential primary I remember hearing Barack Obama say “Cynicism is a sorry kind of wisdom.” I like the way guys like him and Stephen think!

  5. Christina

    I’m actually in the midst of trying to rid myself of cynicism and irony. While I don’t consider myself a cynical person, I do find myself trying to protect myself by being cynical or ironic. It’s easier and safer to be ironic – and thereby make fun of yourself before others get the chance to. But, in doing this, you also miss out on being open and passionate about things that make you really happy.

  6. Maren

    I am such a pessimist, but recently I’ve been trying to rationalize my way out of this. I know that I tend to worry to avoid pain, but I had to stop and think recently — how much suffering do I really avoid that way? Suppose the anticipated pain of being let down when I expected something good is 8/10, to give it a numerical value, and that it will only be 4/10 if I braced myself for it. That seems good, until I think that every single day while I was waiting for the bad news, I was causing myself pain at the 1 or 2 level by being pre-disappointed. If that goes on for weeks, in the end I will have suffered MUCH more hurt than I would have if I’d been optimistic and then let down later (which isn’t even a guarantee in any situation!)

    Sounds goofy and mechanical, I know, but I’m trying to put it into practice because I need to logic myself out of bad thought patterns. Tough so far, though; I’ve been waiting for bad news for about three weeks and it’s been impossible to not be cynical in this situation, despite knowing how terrible the cumulative effect on my mental health is.

  7. Jen (The Trephine)

    I read an interesting book called Why We Make Mistakes, which offered evidence that optimism is a great way to screw up your life. I tend to agree, but that doesn’t mean cynicism is the way to go either. I think my approach is, “Now that I have prepared for the worst, I can feel relatively confident that I am ready for this challenge and will do well.”

    We can call it … earned optimism?

    It’s hard for me to believe that many people have found success, however you define it beyond a very spare Buddhist “in the moment” version, by just deciding that everything was going to be great — at least not without doing the hard work required to give themselves the best odds possible. Stephen included.

  8. LaurenR

    I think he’s spot-on. (and whoa — where did that sexy come from?) Believing in things is a risk, and it’s hard and it takes work. Saying “It was all crap. I knew it all along…” is the easiest thing in the world. It’s lazy and cowardly, and it’s sad.

  9. CW

    I’ve been so bad about this lately. It feels like every risk I’ve taken in the past few years (including some things I didn’t even think were risks) has ended in complete failure. At this point, I’m having a hard time not assuming that everything is going to suck forever.

  10. Lori

    Life is too short to spend it disappointed. If you are open to experiences you learn something. It may be horrible in that moment, but inform the person you become in a good way later on. I’m a glass half full kind of person, and if it starts to become half empty, I just fill it up to the top with vodka :)

  11. beatrice

    I’m crazy stupid in love with the world. I’ve tried to think of ways to sugarcoat that or temper it with something about how it’s because I’m green to the ways of the world or something, but I’m not. This world has given me a lot of shit and a lot of beauty and I just can’t find any reason to focus on the bad. The good stuff always finds a way to stick around. The bad goes away eventually. Isn’t that exciting? Knowing there’s always room for more good in life? I think it is. I really, really think it is.

  12. Jet Harrington

    Me, I have no jade. I see the best in people. I am usually rewarded. Sometimes I step in shit. Might be because I wasn’t watching where I was going, too busy smiling into people’s faces. I get cut off in traffic, and I swear with volume and creativity, then I turn up the music and sing along. Mostly, I figure cynicism is not about me, it’s not mine to hold. I am looking for the wonder and the magic – it’s always there, somewhere, even if I have to dig and carry a big flashlight.

  13. Jen C

    I have cynical moments and days, but overall I am the fool who believes things will be good. Generally they are. As a mental health professional, I can attest that those I work with who have this outlook tend to have better outcomes, even in the worst situations. Those who see nothing but doom and gloom, tend to find it. I guess we do often find what we are looking for. Because we are looking for it. Not that good things don’t happen to my “doom and gloomers” and that bad things don’t happen to my “suzi sunshines” over the course of their lifetime. But there is certainly a pattern. So when I do feel that cynical side of me casting its shadow I do what I can to keep my foolish hope alive. It is what sustains me.

  14. Karin

    “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in” — Mother Teresa
    This is one of my favorite quotes and it comes to me when the world starts to feel oppressive and glum. I’m not really sure about the God part, but it puts a different spin on heartbreak and hurt — thinking of it as an opening rather than a scar.
    It’s still tough in the moment, but makes it easier for me to maintain optimism once I have a little perspective.

  15. Amy

    My mantra, my (imaginary) tattoo: “There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” (Anthem, by Leonard Cohen)

  16. Jen R

    This is a much easier statement to agree with when things are going well in life, and although I do tend to agree with it, if a healthy dose of cynicism would have prevented the events of the last year, then sign me up.

  17. mia

    Different things work for different folks. I get cynical, and it oddly works for me. Having that feeling is like an impetus for self-examination or action for me, in a way that optimism just isn’t. I am just wired this way.

  18. Annabelle

    I’m with Colbert, too. And I’m dubious that being cynical actually prevents any of the hurt. In my experience things that suck suck just as much if you were expecting them than if you weren’t.

  19. Sheri Bheri

    There’s a stupid internet joke out there – “What men wish women knew”. One of the points is “If I say something to you, and it can be taken 2 ways, and one of those ways makes you cry, I meant the other way.” That’s how I live. So the guy who cuts me off in traffic? He must be on his way to seeing his baby being born! How wonderful for him! Godspeed! If I get mad over it, then he’s “won”. And really, it’s my own fault, because he didn’t do it to ‘make’ me mad, but because he’s a jerk.

    It’s also a good parenting tool, to be able to NOT react negatively, while explaining the consequences of those kinds of words / actions.

    I’m still cynical about men though. I guess I should work on that.

  20. denise

    it’s impossible to live life without being hurt. being cynical is a form of hurt in and of itself. don’t label things as good or bad…those are just perceptions. things just are. look for the lesson and the value in every experience.

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