If someone were to ask me what I was, in regards to personality, I’d probably say that I’m a cynic. But, recently, I started thinking about it, and I wondered if that was really accurate. Is a cynic just another term for pessimism? Is a cynic the “harsher” version of realism? What makes a cynic cynical? Who are the realists? What is the difference between optimism and pessimism?
In colloquial terms, we generally assume that a cynic is one who has a lower expectation of other people, tending to believe that their actions are driven by some ulterior motive; a pessimist tends to have a negative view of life in general; and a realist is one who sees life just as it is (which, if one thinks about it, is not exactly possible, as we are all imperceptibly inherently biased in one form or another.)
I waver between cynicism and realism, and often wonder if the two are but synonyms for each other. For example, a cynic tends to see things as they are, and often wishes that there could be a positive change, but realizes that other people make it highly improbable for there to be any lasting change. While a cynic may come off as cold or detached—as an INFJ may exhibit similar traits, but that’s for another post—they tend to observe the world and watch it as it goes through flux, rising and, of course, inevitably falling. A cynic has his standards, but rightly expects that they will be violated, as they all too often are. In essence, a cynic sees things as they are to an extent, but doubts them as they happen, which is not necessarily a bad thing, though it may sound that way. It keeps the cynic grounded in reality, and leaves him with a fairly accurate view of the future.
Another question that may come to mind is this: How are cynics and pessimists different? To help answer the question, I’m going to provide a few examples with what a typical pessimist and cynic would say.
Pessimist: Nobody’s going to be good to me.
Cynic: If someone’s good to me, they probably have a hidden agenda.
Pessimist: The glass is half empty.
Cynic: The glass is dirty.
Pessimist: The glass is half empty. It’s not going to be filled up now.
Cynic: The glass was full at first. Who drank the other half?
It appears as though the cynic has a doubtful *view* of life itself, while the pessimist *reacts* to life and its apparent unfairness. But is it really quite so simple? Is it truly possible to neatly label a person and stick a tag on them that identifies them as a realist or pessimist or nihilist or cynic? Can we so easily and casually decide that because this person is normally grumpy, he must be a cynic, or that because that person is impassive and apathetic, he is a nihilist?
Søren Kierkegaard said, “Once you label me, you negate me.” We as humans often feel the urge to describe a person in a word or two, when there’s so much more to that person. We use terms like conservative and liberal and socialist to simply everything—but that’s not the truth. We are anything but simple. We are complex persons, mysterious and contradictory. There is no way that we can be boxed up into one specific label. We are left with no freedom or opportunity to rise from our current status. We are negated, and our very individuality—our essence—is canceled. And that alone is one of the most egregious errors we can commit to ourselves and our fellow comrades.
Ultimately, I would have to say that I am not just a cynic or a realist or a pessimist. You are not just one of the above personality types. You are a distinctly unique person, complex and intricate. You are everyone else, and you are only yourself. We weren’t made to just blindly operate with just one set goal in mind, heedless to everything else.
We are here for so much more.
Less than three,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
–Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley