The sign on the gate said, “Beware of the dog.” The dog was a powerfully muscled boxer held back by a 10 foot chain with massive links – links that were stretched taut. Whether he had been abused as a pup or whether he had a heightened sense of territorialism, I never knew. His snarling unbridled rage helped me respect the sign’s message.
We humans have had a mixed relationship with canines. Some dogs do our hearts good. Others are described by the Roman, Petronius (ca. 27-66 CE). “A huge dog with a chain round its neck was painted on the wall and over it, in big capitals, was written: Beware of the Dog” (Satyricon, XXIX).
Our word, “cynic” comes to us from Greek. Literally, it means “dog-like,” from kyon “dog” (see “canine”). We may picture philosophers sarcastically baring their teeth. “Sarcastic” fits. It comes from Greek sarkazein – “to speak bitterly, sneer” – literally, “to strip off the flesh” from sarx – “flesh.”
Wordsmiths also suggest that “cynic” may come from Kynosarge which we translate: “Grey Dog.” A student of Socrates gave the name “Grey Dog” to the gymnasium outside ancient Athens. These debaters were relegated to the Grey Dog because only a “pure” Athenian could use gyms inside the city. The Grey Dog gave even second-class citizens a place to sharpen their “cynical” arguments.
Whichever approach we take to cynicism, our word involves “distance” – whether initiated from within – baring teeth – or imposed on the marginalized by gatekeepers – in this case the elitist culture of Athens. “Distance” is from Latin distantia – “a standing apart, separate, distant,” from dis – “apart, off” + stare “to stand.” Distance can break or harden our hearts. Our word, “stand-offish,” gives us the sense of baring teeth. On the other hand, “ostracized” gives us the sense of being put outside. Ostraka were broken pieces of pottery thrown outside the city – dumped – excluded.
Our word shows us that some of us are cynical because we are protecting ourselves – our club – our turf – our way of life. “This is the way We do it.” Beware of offending such cynics. That kind of “We” can become a “pack” of cynics. Tradition of some kind has favored us as “insiders” and woe to the one who threatens our self-righteous tradition. We, the “esoteric” ones, can become drunk with the power of exclusion. “Esoteric” – from the Greek esoterikos – “belonging to an inner circle.”
Some of us are cynical because we have felt the power of the insiders and been kept outside or put outside.
Others of us may have had the determination to move several rings toward the center. But, at what cost? Has integrity been lost – what about health? Eventually, will non-negotiables like gender, age, body type – something – keep us from reaching the inner circle we desire?
Beware being outside too. When we are disregarded, cynicism invites us to drink its bitter-sweet wine. While the rest of life vacillates, we who feel unwelcomed may be seduced into thinking: “At least, we can have the continuity of cynicism.” Bitter grapes, indeed.
See how devious cynicism can be? We can get stuck in the vortex of cynicism’s turmoil. The force may be centripetal or centrifugal but cynicism can be an intoxicating ride.
What happens when we challenge our cynicism? Whether it is profound pride or it is deep frustration – both mask “cowardice” – another “dog” word. “Cowardice” is from Latin coda – “tail” + ard – a suffix with derogatory connotation (see: “bastard,” “buzzard,” “drunkard”). Combined with coda, ard gives us the sense of turning tail – “Coward!”- and also tail between its legs – “Coward!” Hemingway comments: All cowardice comes from not loving or not loving well, which is the same thing.
What can reveal snarling cynicism as the coward it is? Look your cynicism square in the eye. Tell this old dog you are not willing to continue having such distance in your relationships. You want authentic intimacy – a real friend – true “confidentialities.” Our word is from the Latin con – “with” + fides – “faith.”
What faith can tell cynicism to “heel?”
The Christian faith – faith given by Christ – enables many to hear God say: “I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one’ (Hebrew Lo – “not” + Ruhamah – from the noun for “womb” – so the verb is a powerful connecting kind of love – like the connection fostered between a pregnant mother and her child). I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God’” (Hosea 2). When you hear the Infinite Personal God welcome you home, this is the core you’ve been yearning for. In Christ, the distance of cynicism has been overcome. There is a way out of “the pack” – there is life beyond being excluded from the inner circle.
In 1964, a Christian, Jean Vanier, founded the L’Arche community for the mentally handicapped and their helpers. He believes that when confronted with human brokenness and weakness, people often find God. By 2007, there were 130 L’Arche communities in 30 countries on all continents. Vanier wrote Community and Growth in which he describes community this way: “They are mine as I am theirs. What touches them touches me. When I say ‘my people’, I don’t imply that there are others I reject. ‘My people’ is my community, made up of those who know me and carry me. They are a springboard towards all humanity” (p.17, 1979).
Such union, communion, and solidarity with God through Christ opens the door to real friendship – not an inner ring – but a fellowship with others who recognize God at work in you and in this world. “Heel, Cynicism. Jesus is the gateway to real community.”
Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,