“When I pass from this life to the next, I do not want to come back to this place. No, I will not come back to my home, this forsaken village, I will wander as a ghost in the forest. This place is cursed.”
The village elder shook his head and glared through misty eyes at the boxes of mother-tongue literacy workbooks and songbooks for the students in the village. Teachers slouched against the classroom wall, some wiping their eyes. The elder reached out his hand and touched my husband’s shoulder. “It’s no use. Thank you for trying.”
And that was that.
The village teachers helped load the truck with the boxes of books that represented months of intense labor shared by teachers, the literacy team, and provincial education experts. Children murmured quietly to their grandparents, collecting sticky rice and boiled eggs to hand off to my husband and his co-workers for the journey back down the mountain.
A year earlier, the door had swung open for this village to finally get what they wanted: a mother-tongue education program. This village had motivated teachers, outspoken elders, and even funding from the government. After months of hard work and preparation, the project was opened with great fanfare—fireworks and singing, food and dancing. Literacy teachers from a neighboring dialect came to help do training the following week, and then….STOP.
Without going into details, the project fell victim to upper-echelon disputes, and the rationale for shutting down the project remains controversial to this day. Nevermind all the meetings, appeals, and explanations—worthless. Devastating.
Anyway, if there was ever a time to be cynical after living in that particular country for nine years at that point, it was then.
I won’t speak for my husband, or the literacy team, or the broader community. I will speak for myself here and say I was very angry. I prayed things outloud like:
“Seriously God? After ALL the hard work? You’re just gonna let this all go down the drain?”
“Don’t you love the nations? Don’t YOU say ‘every language, every tribe, every tongue?’”
Ouch. I mean, I was smack-talking, pleading, questioning and doing my best Job-impression (minus the boils and destroyed farm). I wasn’t the primary victim in this, but I was mad. I was concerned about the community, the school children, and their rights. Local friends expressed their disappointment too, but assured us that this was no surprise.
It was just one example of the oppression and injustice we observed in our years there. But we always kept going, riding on the waves of small God-given successes and meaningful relationships that flourished. Until then. It was the end of the road for grass-roots, government-approved minority language projects.
One of our teacher friends said, “We expect to be treated this way. They don’t care about us, our language, our culture. Why are you surprised? You have seen and experienced it yourself all these years now.” Though he had experienced injustice after injustice in his life, he was still an advocate for his people. He loved God, his family, his water buffalo, his village school. He didn’t let the “bad things” get him down, instead he just shrugged. It was a mystery to me.
Life is not fair, we know this. And yet, when the bad guy gets his way, or the job offer goes to someone else, it’s hard to swallow. When you experience racism, ignorance, or harassment, it’s tempting to become cynical. When you witness or are the victim of violence, corrupt courts, or oppression, it can feel too exhausting or overwhelming to have any hope. When you have been betrayed by family or friends, pushed away, ignored, or misunderstood, walls go up as trust crumbles. When you speak up and advocate for change, but things don’t change, disillusionment and cynicism can easily creep in.
When you know how it SHOULD be, but it isn’t…well, it’s hard to resist complaining or just flat out giving up on humans. It’s easy to think the worst of others; to wonder, “What’s the angle?” It’s hard to trust. It can be harder to trust God.
When we left the country for a Sabbatical, I was at the point where I was so exhausted from everything- the hopelessness, the blatant corruption, and trying to maintain a “positive attitude”- that I was truly cynical. To put it frankly, it was like the last nine years of my life there was one big joke. Like I’d been tricked by God. I was so blinded by my disappointment in God that I couldn’t see all the good, all the love, all the beauty that was STILL so evident in my life around me and others.
In her recent book, Get Out of Your Head, Jennie Allen writes:
Cynicism erodes our ability to see God rightly. At its root is a refusal to believe that God is in control and God is good. Cynicism is interpreting the world and God based on hurt you’ve experienced and the wounds that still lie gaping open. It forces you to look horizontally at people rather than vertically to God.
In Phillipians, Paul gives us a pretty good approach to battle cynicism. He says to think about whatever is honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise AND to not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayers and supplication with thanksgiving, let our requests be made known to God. Paul admonishes us to dwell on the goodness of God so that we can experience peace that will guard our hearts and minds.
Paul also tells us to be reasonable, and that has a whole lot to do with our thought-life, which has a whole lot to do with our behavior, and the way we view the world. Right? Why give my mind over to thoughts of despair, revenge or bitterness, when I can have the mind of Christ to help me fight battles and live freely?
We can do hard things with hope, rather than have a mind of cynicism. Because life gets turned upside down, knocks us off our feet, and leaves us with a lot of questions that don’t have simple answers. For me, I have chosen to place my trust in the One who offers a forever love and the promise of His presence, despite all that is not right in the world. I don’t want to be cynical, because I know how terrible it makes me feel, and how it distracts me from all that is beautiful and worth believing in.
It’s been six years since the old man said he’d rather wander as a ghost than return to his village. And honestly, I still wonder, “Why God?” So, I pray for the old man, and I pray for the village. I pray for peace to guard my heart and my mind. I pray for my eyes to see the glory that is all around me. I find myself becoming grateful, and more emboldened to be a force of God’s love in the world. I find myself having hope.
Has there been an experience or time in your life where cynicism took over? How did you get through it? What areas in your life are clouded by cynicism today, and how can we pray for you?