On Cynicism and Skepticism

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A bearded, shabbily clad man wearing a knit cap came to my door this morning. His drooping shoulders and downcast eyes portrayed an image of dejectedness. In mumbled tones he implored me for a dollar so that he could get a burger basket. Reading my hesitation, he asked if I had any yard work that he could do in exchange for a little money. It was a timely offer. Peggy had been on my case for several days to rake the leaves in our yard and this seemed like the perfect way to discharge my household duty while at the same time help a homeless person. Jackie was his name, he said. He seemed genuinely pleased that I had asked. I attempted to negotiate a price on a heavily leaved section of the front yard but Jackie held to a meek "whatever-you-want-to-pay-me" posture. Determining within myself to pay him a reasonable wage ($10 per hour if he worked steadily), I handed him my rake, offered a few instructions on where to pile the leaves, and went back into the house feeling rather pleased with the arrangement.

Less than ten minutes had passed when another knock came to my front door. It was Jackie, huffing heavily. He was ready for me to inspect his work, he said. It was hard to believe that he could have raked up all those leaves in such a short period of time. In fact he hadn't. He had a small patch raked into a pile, little more than a fair start. I praised him for his work and told him my intent to pay him $10 an hour if he would finish up the job. Jackie was pleased with the sound of the money and asked that I pay him right then. But when I insisted that the work be completed first, he said that he was unable to handle the whole job. Actually, he had done all he could, he informed me. We settled for $1.50 and he headed off down the street.

As I watched Jackie leave, my mind trailed back to a recent scene on the corner of a busy downtown Atlanta intersection. Another unshaven, poorly attired man had caught my attention as I waited for the light to change. He held a handmade cardboard sign which read: "No games - Need money for beer." His approach brought a spontaneous smile to my face. There was something I had to admire about the man's candor. He was admitting publicly that the "Homeless - will work for food" approach which elicited more unearned donations than legitimate wages was mostly a con game. He was testing the assumption that caring people would rather respond to an honest request, even if it supports a man's drinking habit, than be emotionally manipulated by a heart-tugging deception. I was amused by the friendly and humorous exchanges with those who dropped "honest money" into his cup.

cyn-i-cism (sin'i-siz´em) noun 1. A scornful, bitterly mocking attitude or quality

There is a noticeable pull toward cynicism in our land, especially as it relates to the poor. Do you feel the growing impatience with the irresponsible, the intolerance for the unproductive, the weariness of being blamed for the deficiencies of others? I certainly do. Experiences like this morning's incident with Jackie only serve to reinforce a bias against the needy. How many times can a caring heart be disappointed, how many times can a helping hand be bitten, before compassion ceases to flow? How long can one fight the tendency to make characterizations out of these disheartening encounters? Self-protecting callouses inevitably form that dull the sensitivities of the heart and make it easier to dismiss the needs of others. In time a "bitter, mocking attitude" can seep into our thinking and humor, and spread like toxic waste into the underground aquifers of our spirit. I can feel the pull in that direction.

skep-ti-cism also scep-ti-cism (skep'ti-siz´em) noun 1. A doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind; dubiety. See Synonyms at UNCERTAINTY

Skepticism is not the same as a cynical "bitter and mocking attitude." It is a reservation of judgement that lies somewhere between innocent naiveté and callous disregard. A "questioning attitude" leaves one's spirit open for the miraculous while keeping one's mind on alert for deviousness. I think that healthy skepticism may be the optimal ground for caring people to occupy. I must admit, however, that I love it when enthusiastic new ministry staff and volunteers arrive in the city. They come with open hearts and outstretched arms anxious to embrace with unconditional love the less fortunate of our community. They are eager to put into practice the great Love Chapter of scripture and "believe all things...hope all things...endure all things." With unquestioning trust they accept at face value the tales and tragedies, the confessions and concoctions of vulnerable victims and cunning performers alike, offering grace without discrimination. This kind of genuine, innocent compassion is both inspiring and convicting. I think it must be very close to the kind of graciousness God lavishes again and again upon the most undeserving, and very far from the cautious care that battle-worn veterans (like me) dispense.

But time-in-grade has a way of tempering such unrestrained self-giving. A few disappointments and a fresh recruit begins to question the wisdom of indiscriminate charity. An overdose of betrayal can send one free-falling into serious discouragement and can even lead to a crisis of faith. In time, however, if one resists the temptation to detach, an equilibrium will begin to emerge, a solid footing on the terrain between gullibility and hardness of heart. Such balance, however, may well be more a function of survival than of faith.

My interaction with Jackie this morning left me with a certain kind of satisfaction. Our transaction was fair and responsible. I feel relatively good for taking him at face value and dignifying him with a wage, small though it was, rather than a handout. I feel even better at not being taken advantage of. I held a balanced ground. My only uneasiness comes from wondering whether Jackie might have preferred a hot meal in my home over the $1.50 that I paid him. I didn't ask and I will probably never know. If I have erred, it is in the direction of principled behavior rather than on the side of lavish grace. I suspect, though, that God may lean the other way. I really hope so!

Bob Lupton

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