Backpacker's guide Education Plus

Staving off cynicism

I’m sitting at a table with six young people, each representing a different field of study and practice, ranging from urban planning to heritage conservation to law to higher education administration. I’m the only one with any shade of grey in my hair and any streak of pessimism in my mind. The conversation wanders around the erosion of the natural world, the messiness of modern cities, the politics of higher education, and the inequities that stem from certain kinds of development. One young woman wonders whether it’s possible to imagine a system that is not dependent on monetising everything, a world which can run without money. It’s a conversation tinged with some disappointment, some impatience and a bit of anger, but significantly, lacking that quality that I so often find in adult talk — cynicism. They’re all full of hope and the possibility of finding answers. They carry in their voices and in their walk the conviction that their study, their work, is meaningful and that they can make a difference. Their enthusiasm is mutually reinforcing, as they listen to each other with interest and a sense of confidence.

I remember seeing a poster on someone’s wall that had the words “This is the way it has always been done” struck through with a bold red line. It was an invitation to think differently, to challenge the status quo, to come up with ideas that could lead to change.

But I also recall a recent conversation with a former student, who had entered her first job full of positive energy, hoping to put her learning to good use. Soon she found her colleagues telling her not to push herself too hard, that there was no point in trying to make a difference. “ Chhodo, yaar,” they would say, “ Koi farak nahi padne wala” (Let it go, it’s not going to make any difference, or, There’s no point breaking your back over that; things will never change).

We’ve all probably heard this kind of comment at different points in our lives. Sometimes we ourselves feel it because we see nothing moving, no change happening, despite our best efforts. If we hear it or feel it often enough, cynicism becomes almost inevitable. And once cynicism sets in, it’s very hard to feel motivated. Once that happens, the job becomes uninteresting, just drudgery.

To some extent, it is possible to understand why people get cynical after many long years of experience. Yet, we also see older people who, despite a series of failures or disappointments, even betrayals, will still get up and go to work every day with a sense of purpose and the willingness to believe that some good will come of what they do.

What is it that keeps hope alive and cynicism at bay? What can make us believe that our work and our actions can actually contribute to a productive and meaningful outcome, instead of giving into the idea that it means nothing, or serves some selfish or exploitative interest? How is it that some people are able to keep their spirits — and their belief — at a high enough level to avoid cynicism?

As a student, or a young professional, one cannot really afford to get cynical, and there is little reason to become so — except in very few cases where life may have given you some really bad knocks. But if you’re not one of those unlucky people, it is important to look at that cynicism in the face and ask it some hard questions.

Where is this feeling of disillusionment coming from? Is it from your own experience or because of something someone said? If it’s the latter, then it has no real basis. Besides, often those who say nothing can be done are really only saying they have not been able to do anything. You, on the other hand, could still try.

What do you gain by thinking this way? Probably nothing, other than giving yourself a long and tedious — not to mention hopeless — future in your chosen field.

How do you plan to go ahead? If you are going to remain cynical and hopeless, you have two options: live with it and get on with your work, or move to something that doesn’t make you feel this way.

Is there really no hope? Not even a glimmer? Then re-evaluate your approach, your way of approaching the problem, and, maybe, even the way you understand or define the problem.

I’ve found that one way of retaining hope is to cultivate curiosity about a wide range of things. You will find that there are many fields of activity where good things are happening, and many spaces within your own field where this is the case. Consciously look for people who tell good stories, rather than surrounding yourself with those who are constantly spelling doom and gloom.

Often the answers to problems come from completely different areas, and you will only find them if you travel widely — in your mind and in your spirit. To some extent, that was what the young people around the table were doing.

The way I see it, cynicism is the easy way out. Hope is more difficult to keep. But when you have it, life and work become easier, and somewhat more pleasurable.

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. Email:

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 2:31:04 AM |

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