Shrugs. Snarky comments. Cynicism seems to be endemic these days: a major study
at Michigan State University in 2010 found that people today are much moreFostering a positive atmosphere can be a challenge
likely to be “more cynical and less trusting” than in the past, and it seems
like our cynicism epidemic has only worsened since then.
of cynicism is optimism and hope. It isn’t always easy to nurture these
positive emotions in families; anyone with teenagers will tell you that
fostering a positive atmosphere can be a challenge.
five strategies that have worked in our family, helping us to banish cynicism
and encouraging us to look at the world in a more cheerful, upbeat manner.
1. “In the Image of G‑d”
recounts that when human beings were first created, we were created B’tzelem Elokim, “in the image of G‑d”
(Gen. 1:27). This is a powerful concept: Each one of us reflects a facet of the
Divine. Keeping this in mind can have a profound effect on the way we speak
about others, reminding us that we all have intrinsic value. Even when we
disagree, if we view other people as being created in the image of G‑d, we’re
much less likely to mock or belittle them.
mind that we’re all made B’tzelem Elokim
can help minimize cynicism in another way, too—by boosting our self-esteem.
Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany looking into cynicism found
that cynics suffer from low self-esteem.
Feeling worthless can lead us to lash out at other people, and that, in
turn, can make it more difficult to connect with others.
practical level, whenever I hear my kids (or myself) start slipping into
destructive, negative speech, I remind us that the people we’re speaking about
were all created B’tzelem Elokim, and
that as such, we all deserve basic courtesy and respect.
2. Zero Tolerance
When my kids
were younger, my son thought the word “stupid” was a profanity because it was
forbidden to utter in our home. Now that my kids are older, we’ve tried to beWe try to be vigilent about destructive speech
vigilant about other forms of destructive speech. Starting to engage in insults
and cynical comments quickly escalates; our solution is to try to stop this
kind of damaging speech immediately, before it can start to feel normal.
calendar provides a yearly reminder of the importance of stopping dangerous
behavior before it can take root and spread. Tisha B’Av—the day commemorating
the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem—is observed not on the 10th of the
Hebrew month of Av, when the Temple was actually destroyed, but on the ninth of
Av, the day that the fire that would soon destroy the Temple was set. Sometimes, the beginning of a negative trait
or action is the most dangerous moment, so it’s best if we can stop negativity
before it becomes habit and starts to spread its damage in our lives.
3. Judge Others Favorably
enjoins us to judge other people favorably (Pirkei Avot 1:6). When I first
learned of this curious instruction, I wondered how to perform it. After all, I
reasoned, I can’t help the way I think, and if I harbor negative suspicions
about other people, surely there’s no way to change that? Trying to put this
mitzvah into practice, however, had a major effect on my outlook. Someone cut
me off in traffic? Maybe he didn’t see me or is a student driver, I’d tell
myself. A sales clerk gave me the wrong change? It was most likely an honest
mistake, I’d say. Before long, I felt happier and more optimistic.
when our family conversation threatens to take a negative turn, we all try to
work on giving people the benefit of the doubt. Often, our determination to
judge favorably has been proved right. People who seem rude or unpleasant often
truly are merely distracted, busy, tired or coping with difficulties in their
own lives, we’ve learned. Recognizing
this helps put us in a better frame of mind and banishes cynicism.
4. Get to Know Others
know other people is a powerful antidote to making sweeping or cynical
generalizations about them. Years ago, I received a surprising comment. My
daughter and I had made dinner, and delivered it to a family that was in the
midst of a medical emergency. As we dropped it off, a relative of the family
who was visiting asked if the dinner was kosher. When I replied that it was,
she was silent for a few minutes before explaining: “I used to think religious
Jews who kept kosher were selfish and wouldn’t help people like us. Maybe I’ll
have to reconsider.” Her words startled me, but later on, I thought of a
similar experience in my own family.
When my kids
didn’t know what to make of a new family who moved to our town years ago (and
made a few less-than-flattering remarks about the new kids’ seemingly different
ways of doing things), I invited the new family over for dinner. After a few
hours of visiting, our kids became fast friends. Sometimes, simply getting to
know people who are different from us can reduce cynicism and help us be more
open to other people.
5. Look for the Good
sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had a number of disciples. He asked them to “go
out and discern which is the proper path to which a man should cling.” Each ofWhen we develop our ability to see the best in others, we elevate ourselves
his disciples, who were great rabbis in their own right, enumerated different
qualities that were crucial to a moral life. One expressed that it is
imperative we find a good friend and associate with positive influences on our
lives. Another explained that it is crucial to choose a good neighbor and live
in upstanding communities that will influence us to live well, too. A third
disciple said that cultivating a good heart is important, for that quality
leads us to be good. But one disciple, Rabbi Eliezer, gave a puzzling answer.
The most central quality to cultivate, he stated, is having a “good eye.”
It was this
quality that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai agreed was the most central because, he
explained, all the other important character traits that his other disciples
wisely enumerated are contained in the ability to see the good in others. When
we develop our ability to look at others and see the best in them, we elevate
ourselves. Other traits, such as a good heart—and an eagerness to associate
with those who are good for us and can be positive role models—will naturally
family tries this experiment on a weekly basis. Every Friday night, my husband
asks our kids to name three ways they are grateful to me. Sometimes, I extend
this, asking everyone to name three things they like about their dad and each
other. Doing this forces us to acknowledge the good in our family; it heads off
cynicism and fosters optimism.
We can all
extend this exercise further, looking for ways to find the positive in other
people or groups, even—and maybe especially—with those with whom we disagree.
Doing this helps keep us in a solid frame of mind, and encourages us to be
generous with our thoughts, feelings and words.