What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason…how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god!
People are the worst.
Some people claim to be hardcore romantics – absolute humanitarians, idealists, utopians, dreamers, philanthropists, people who profess to love, tolerate and respect everyone. Others claim to be hardcore cynics, people who disdain humans as egomaniacal fools best used, trounced, or ignored.
Both options have the benefit of being simple at a cost of being false. Humans are pieces of work in both senses, noble in reason and total pieces of work.
So what’s the alternative? Romanticynicism, watering down neither your romantic heart nor your cynical disdain but struggling lifelong with the tension between them – caring for others but forever struggling to know your limits, giving some people the benefit of the doubt while denying it to others, loving yourself while remembering that you wouldn’t put it past you to have the same vile urges you find in others.
Romanticynicism is how we all really live anyway, despite what lip service we give to absolute romanticism or absolute cynicism. We’re social creatures, humanitarians living warily.
Take how you decide who to trust. You’re stuck between a crock and a hard place. The idea that you should trust everyone is an unworkable crock of BS. But the alternative, trusting no one over-hardens you.
Sometimes it’s easy: You have total trust for some, total distrust for others. In between, which covers a lot of ground, the question comes up: How much should you trust this one?
The romantic in you recognizes that it’s heartless to distrust the trustworthy. The cynic in you recognizes that it’s dangerous to trust the untrustworthy. The romantic in you feels you should trust more, the cynic in you feels you should trust less.
You’re nagged in stereo – a potentially reasonable voice in each ear. Devil vs. angel stereo would be easier, one voice telling you to do the right thing, the other telling you to do the wrong thing as though it’s obvious. With romanticynicism, both voices urge you to do what’s either right or wrong. No matter how much you end up trusting or distrusting, the opposing nagging voice is still there. Am I being too gullible? Too cold?
People can play on your doubt. “How can you distrust me? Where’s your heart?” vs. “You let them do that? You really are a pushover!”
Romanticynics aren’t fazed by such reactions. They’re use to them, having heard them all life long. They know they’re dealing with a tough judgment call. They can’t settle on “love is the answer.” Love is the question and always has been. They’ve heard those opposing voices for so long they’re no longer whipsawed by them the way they would be if they were pretending to be pure romantics or pure cynics. They recognize that everyone hears those voices, always and forever. Indeed, those stereo voices, not just “the story of my life,” but of all life.
All organisms have to engage in selective interaction, being open to some things, closed to others. Organisms need to let in energy and resources but need to keep out toxins. An organism is an island of selfhood that must import and export to remain an island of selfhood. How old is the tension between being open and closed, trusting and distrusting? As old as life itself.
This tension that lives on in us seeks relief in platitudes, oversimplifying romantic crocks or oversimplifying cynical hard places.
The tension seeks tokens too, a token devotion to one or another romantic object that we think certifies us as pure romantics or a token disdain that certifies us pure cynics:
“I love my family which proves I’m all-loving.” My God, country, tribe, party, cause, lover – some singular token love that proves we love everything. Pretending that we have proven ourselves all-loving, we feel licensed to declare everyone who challenges us a hater.
“I hate political correctness which proves I’m an all-savvy cynic.” “I’m above it all, a seasoned sage suffering a world of fools. Anyone who challenges me is a romantic idiot.”
Romanticynics keep an open mind but don’t let their brains spill out. They keep the question of what to love and trust alive both with others and with themselves. They know that they have to earn love and trust, that no one owes it to them out of some universal moral obligation to trust and love everyone. And that it can be earned with fellow romanticynics, since they aren’t working from some formula that no one deserves love and trust.