The Trap of Cynicism


At the heart of the Allender Theory is the belief that our desires are beautiful and God-given, but that traumatic experiences and harmful messages train us treat desire with shame, fear, and cynicism. Here, Trapper Lukaart, Externship Supervisor and member of our Teaching Staff, writes about his own relationship with cynicism and how the journey of reclaiming desire has led him to a surprising and long-buried story from his past.

In years past I haven’t made New Year’s resolutions. Not because I am a realist or prudent somehow, but as a consequence of harboring a vein of cynicism. In many ways I am hopeful and openly desirous, so it is unpleasant to acknowledge that the cynical part of me plays such a prominent role. Cynicism is stifling and moves to stale exhaustion if maintained, but it does a splendid job of protecting from a hope that is expansive and life-giving and, also, guaranteed to hurt.

Cynicism protects from a hope that is expansive and life-giving and, also, guaranteed to hurt.

Cynicism ensures you won’t be caught up in a transformational story that is both bigger than you and meant for you. It is tiresome, safe, and incredibly dull. As the New Year approached I found myself desiring to commit to a resolution—wanting to feel the possibility of what hope and desire beyond my immediate grasp could bring. Unbeknownst to me, I would have to go through a circus clown and, ultimately, the face of my 6-year-old self to peer at the genesis of my cynicism.

I recently asked my wife this “hypothetical” question: “If I am able to get myself to the gym in the early morning would you shoulder the added burden of getting the kids ready for the day?” Without hesitation she said yes, to which I skeptically inquired again as if she hadn’t heard me properly. Her response was simple: “I would want to support you if you were willing to make that commitment—I know it’s something you really want.” Her “yes” is what I was hoping for, and yet as soon as she offered it a low-grade panic emerged. If I were to exercise regularly I would inevitably begin to feel better and have more energy. Wellness would then pave the way to more and deeper desires for engagement, creativity, and intimacy. These qualities are unruly and spontaneous and uniquely meant to reveal something of the character of God. They do not comply with the strict management of cynicism. My wife’s “yes,” then, had opened a wormhole into my relationship with cynicism and set me down with my 6-year-old-self.

As memories do, it came back in shards of smells, sights, and sensations. I easily dismissed it as a distraction the first several times it broke into consciousness. The memory had not been logged as a significant marking moment and hadn’t come up in over a quarter century. But the Holy Spirit is persistent and seems to value the journey over the answer, so I finally relented as any good cynic would: “Fine, there are worse ways to waste my time,” I spoke to an empty office as I spun my chair away from the desk. I was brought to a clown’s face and the remembrance that the making of a cynic so often begins with ingredients of deep hope, desire, and sensitivity that are then sullied and inverted by betrayal.

The first act had ended and we joined the hundreds of others to stretch our legs and trade the smell of elephants for preservatives and refreshed rancid butter. As we waited to overspend on some interchangeable gutbomb, I continued to replay the moment when the stretchy-pantsed man appeared to get his entire head stuck in the mouth a lion. As I debated whether or not to believe my mom’s reassurance that it wasn’t real, a crisp dollar bill lying on the concrete floor entered my field of vision. Rapidly scanning the immediate area, it did not appear as if anyone was making a move towards this treasure—which made no sense to me, but I wasn’t about to ask questions. After all, a dollar bill to a 6-year-old Dutch kid in the early ‘80s was a heroic find, eclipsing any need for logic or suspicion. I coolly sauntered over and reached down to snatch it, my imagination already having spent it on a box of bb’s and a Hershey’s bar. Just as my hand began to curl around the bill it was ripped away by some unseen force. I shook off my disorientation to follow the trajectory of the bill a few feet away: up puffy polka-dotted pants and a ridiculous ruffled shirt, stopping in front of a face of malicious mockery that asinine paint only served to accentuate. That satanic clown maintained eye contact just long enough to pair the tapering of his sadistic laugh with the draining of the last drop of delight from my withered 6-year-old body, at which point he turned on his narrow red heel and strode away. I heard a few chuckles from the surrounding audience but could not bring myself to match them to faces, my head stuck in the position of shame.

I’m pretty sure that public humiliation will have a very special room in hell. It is a vicious trap that, even if you can run from it, slaps the tag “coward” on your back to coincide with the “fool” on the front. I would love to report that I walked away from that experience cursing that clown, or even lamenting the failure of protection from the adults at my side who were unwilling to risk their own embarrassment. But it never works like that! Instead, humiliation gave way to self-accusation that, without the wisdom and kindness of an intervening force, declared itself true and right. Masking as protector, self-betrayal coiled itself around me whispering in my ear, “Don’t be so eager next time,” “Don’t leave your joy and excitement dangling out there,” “Don’t trust a heart that moves unencumbered by skepticism.”

The true darkness accompanying all unaddressed harm is the way in which we are drawn in and made complicit. As wicked as the clown was, his only real accomplishment was to ride the coattails of mockery I’d endured at home and confirm its legitimacy to the public. But like so many stories of its kind, for reasons beyond comprehension, years of far more potent mockery came to be housed in this relatively mundane 30-second moment. That clown and his dollar bill solidified the felt need for the first vow I can clearly recall making. Herein lies the lasting effect of all harm great and small: our agreement with how the event names us fosters a commitment to not allowing it to happen again. My vow at 6 was this: “I will not speak or act with visible spontaneity and joy,” with the central belief that I was a fool deserving of mockery if I exposed these parts of my heart. Cynicism would grow well in the fertile soil of this vow.

My desire for a New Year’s resolution, through little conscious guidance of my own, brought me to the face of a clown. But in the end his face was merely a catalyst. I had taken on his face, but instead of colored latex mine took the form of calculation and stoicism in contexts of raw joy or excitement. Betrayal and mockery leave us feeling as if we’ve been hollowed out by a dull ice cream scooper, yet the destruction they create pales in comparison to our ongoing agreement with the name they stamp on us. “Cynic” has served to keep the name of “fool” safely at bay, but with it my true name remains buried in rubble.

“Cynic” has served to keep the name of “fool” safely at bay, but with it my true name remains buried in rubble.

Most of us know that sense of dread or fear when the process of change asks us to engage with kindness and care that which we’ve spent years burying or loathing. To be in the presence of my lively, innocent, dollar-grabbing 6-year-old self was initially agonizing. To speak truth in kindness where there was shame and silence begins to deteriorate the protection offered by making a vow, which exposes an open wound, a heart needing to be renamed. Suffering demands comfort in one of two broad forms: anesthetization or engagement with specific places in us where wounds have been poorly tended to. The latter always comes with a high degree of vulnerability—not merely because we don’t like to need and rely on the goodness of others, but because the places that need comfort are young and scared. Whereas cynicism stagnates, hope seeks to take us back in order to go forward. When we give ourselves over to a hope that moves us closer to the person we are meant to be, it quickly becomes unmanageable. Because, ultimately, it is not meant to be managed. It is meant to be parented.