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Cynics beware

human foibles

A few years ago, I was perusing the archives of a college student newspaper. It was the end of the year, the time for graduating columnists to sit down and pen their last piece. I stumbled upon one particular column that stood out from the others. It wasn’t because the piece was full of somewhat-vague generalizations about one’s time at university and how the experience was transformative, et cetera, et cetera—after all, most of the pieces contained some sort of introspection.

No, the piece was memorable because it talked about how this particular student had come into college thinking that she could change the world and now realized that she, for the most part, had been wrong. “How silly and naive people are to believe such things!” was the general conclusion.

I can no longer find that particular column, but its message has stuck with me over the years. I often say that college changes people, and usually not for the better. When it comes to crushing people’s optimism, this is certainly the case. Countless times, I have seen freshmen enter Duke full of enthusiasm and vigor, only to have it all sucked out of them by the time they graduate. Over time, students become rather cynical and pessimistic, and they begin to say and think things even Debbie Downer would find a little negative. “Don’t trust anyone but your family and friends.” “It’s just human nature, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” “Life is short, and then you die.” The list goes on and on.

You might be tempted to say that college students become more realistic as opposed to cynical or pessimistic. After all, people can be untrustworthy, human nature can be difficult to overcome, and life can be hard. But there are subtle differences between the realists and the pessimists/cynics. Most importantly, those who are realistic don’t necessarily give up hope that things can change; those who are pessimistic invariably do. If you are hardwired to believe that the worst will always happen, there soon becomes little reason to think otherwise. You eventually adopt a degree of complacency, accepting that things will simply never go the way you want them to.

Of course, the world in which we live often doesn’t help promote a sense of optimism. On campus, you will often hear people express the usual gripes about Duke: that it’s too competitive, that everyone is under a constant pressure to succeed, that students often feel unwelcome or not at home. And it goes without saying that the world outside the university bubble isn’t always such a great place either. Small wonder that if you poll people nowadays and ask them questions like, “Will humans ever stop fighting wars?”, they will probably say no.

But when such cynicism begins to take hold, what happens next is quite tragic. People stop trying to make the world a better place; it is impossible to do, they think, since people will never change. This shift in thinking seems to begin in college and progresses rapidly as one navigates the post-graduation world. As a result, the vast majority of adults end up extremely cynical, frequently lobbing around “That’s just the way it is,” or “Well, people are people, what can you do?” wherever they go. Unfortunately, it seems that becoming more mature doesn’t necessarily make you wiser. These adults forget everything they believed in as youths: that change can occur, though it may take a while, and that human beings are capable of learning new tricks, though teaching them may be difficult. Movements can succeed if people are willing to believe and put forward the effort: a notable one from the 1960s comes to mind.

And what is the cost of forgetting such important lessons? People who give up on the world turn to promoting their own self-interests; they begin to care more about themselves and less about other people, and they stop helping anyone outside of their circles of trust. Their cynicism leaves them unable to enjoy other people’s company, and their pessimism leaves them unable to enjoy pretty much anything. For some, being pessimistic even becomes the more desirable option. After all, if you stop believing that things will turn out well, then it’s a win-win situation: if they don’t turn out well, you aren’t too disappointed, since you already prepared for that outcome, and if they do, you are surprised and happy. Or so the thought goes. In addition to being a bit of a cop-out and a way to avoid any sort of disappointment, such pessimism leaves one unable to experience the true joy that comes from believing in something and seeing it succeed. It does provide something, however: a crippling lack of confidence.

It may be more important now than ever to keep the flames of belief burning. Comparing the aforementioned polls to those taken just a few short decades ago indicate that pessimism and cynicism may be on the rise. We cannot let ourselves become apathetic to the problems of the world, as things will only get worse if we do. So, for those who still believe that they can effect change, who retain a sense of optimism: keep doing what you have been doing, and don’t be discouraged by the naysayers. Wherever you go, people will tell you that what you want to accomplish is silly, that one person by themselves can’t do a thing. Ignoring these people’s advice is crucial to maintaining a positive outlook on life. But if one ever starts feeling discouraged, just remember: how would these people know anything about changing the world? The odds are pretty good that they’ve never even bothered to try.

Ben Zhang is a Trinity senior. His column, “human foibles” usually runs on alternate Mondays.

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