It caught me off guard. I was sitting with a student I have been discipling for nearly 4 years now. We were catching up with each other over a bowl of chips and salsa which sat before us. Our interchange began with some fairly general questions about my job, his future endeavors, and what we had missed in the last months since meeting. As we were talking over whether or not a lawn business or college would make a better career, he pauses and says, “You are the most sarcastic person I know.” I wasn’t surprised. Generally, I see comments like these as complements. I tend to be rather sarcastic and enjoy the witty banter that often follows. I then pushed further, saying, “Well, I am sarcastic, but at least I’m not cynical about it.” I waited for him to agree with me. Unfortunately, the words I heard out of his mouth did not echo what I imagined him saying in my head. “Well” he said, “Actually, much of what you say can tend to be quite cynical.” This was a comment I could not ignore.
Sarcasm, cynicism, and pessimism are not unique to me or my generation (Note: I’ll use these words somewhat interchangeably although I am aware of the nuances with each of these words). These are all ultimately heart issues which have been within the human race since the beginning of time. It is certainly not something that we find to be simply a generational trend, but a multi-generational trend. But where have these attitudes, which I would argue has turned mainly into cynicism, come from? Why do I see in my own language and attitudes, a sense that I am far more pessimistic than previous generations? Why am I seeing this in others while those older than us speak words which are far more positive and encouraging? More importantly, how do I and others actually live out and speak with the joy we are supposed to have as people who have been saved from sin and death?
Why Are we So Pessimistic/Cynical?
I stated above that pessimism, cynicism, and sarcasm are heart issues. While they can be linked to outside circumstances, these outside circumstances are not the reason for our cynicism or pessimism. Nevertheless, here some reasons I see as to why we are so pessimistic/cynical:
First, Millennials and beyond will never quite live with the same financial wealth of our parents. If you want evidence of this, you can simply google search the topic. When you do, you will find that Millennials, in particular, make less now than their parents did when they were the same age. The economy is not what it once was. Many children of the Boomers will never quite live with the same comforts financially that their parents had or that they had growing up. In a world with an ever increasing cost of living, Millennials and I-Gen’s find themselves asking themselves how they can possibly pay the cost to live while paying of student loans as well. I see this constantly on Facebook where people complain that the cost of living is higher than what a minimum wage job pays. I see this in my own life with student loans. Some will argue that spending on hobbies has also increased. While I believe this is true and that many Millennials and (I believe the data says otherwise for I-Gen’s) spend beyond their means, student debt and cost of living have certainly made it easier for these generations to be quite cynical and more pessimistic about their future.
Second, smart phones and social media have created a comparison culture. Nothing makes you pessimistic quite like comparison. In a day where we can see instant updates and pictures of the house our friends just bought or the vacation they are currently on, it is easy to become cynical of them. It is easy to ask the all-too common questions of why you can’t afford a house or can’t afford a vacation. It is easy to be discontent with where you are which often turns into jealousy which turns into a cynical attitude. Recent studies have shown that more time on a smart phone and social media is linked to unhappiness as well as depression. With the amount of time Millennials and I-Gen spend on their phones, it is not difficult to see why they are so unhappy. Instead of living our own lives, we are constantly comparing our lives with others on social media. We associate other’s lives with what they post rather than what they actually are. We start to believe that the pictures posted of the “perfect moments” describe their lives at all times. This, of course, is not the case. There are hardships, disappointments and challenges in their lives just like our own. Our lives are more similar than they are different even though our social media pages may say otherwise. The comparisons we make with others only cause us to question why we have not been given the same things they have.
Third, our worldview is filled with pessimism and our media reflects this. Have you watched the news lately? Read the latest headline? We are coming off of a week in which two celebrities who seemed to have their lives put together committed suicide. Within the last couple of months we’ve seen headlines which include several more instances of individuals being accused of sexual misconduct which spurred the #metoo movement inside and outside the church. Politics divide the country more than at any other time in the nation’s history. Law enforcement, who should be protecting all people, have been accused and found guilty of crimes which were unspeakable. Not surprisingly, due to these events, people are cynical of Hollywood, government and any other authority. In our eyes, the world does not seem to be getting any better but much worse. More and more, it looks as if people only do anything for their own pleasure, no matter how diabolical that act may be. Any good that may be done in this world is overshadowed by evil. Millennials and I-Gen’s have caught on to this as streams of news hits their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts. The result is less trust of others and less hope for the future.
Is it biblical to have an attitude of pessimism and cynicism? The answer is a resounding no. People who have the hope of the Gospel understand that their life if more than what is lived on this earth. Christians have a future hope which is far greater than the trials and tribulations they will face here. The suffering Christians will face or feel like they are facing because of their economic situation, the sorrow experienced in this life or the grind of day-to-day living in a fallen world “is not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). How can we possibly live a life of pessimism when we compare it to what we will one day receive?
If we understand the Gospel and its effects on our daily lives, we know we have been called to something more. Christians have been called to a life that is separate from the attitudes and the actions we see in this world. They are called to be a holy people who desire to live out the Gospel in their daily lives. They understand that they have been called to be salt and light in a culture that is in constant decay and in darkness (Matt. 5:13-16). Our attitudes and our words must be different because we are different people. We are ambassadors, not of a Kingdom which evokes sorrow, but of a Kingdom which one day promises no more tears or sorrow (Rev. 21:4). We have a Savior who has given us life to the full (Jn. 10:10b). This is worth celebrating. It is worth living our lives filled with joy. We can wholeheartedly live joyful lives because we know Who is in control. We know we serve the One who holds everything together (Col. 1:17).
What About Sarcasm?
I realize I’ve spent no space on the issue of sarcasm. Here is my brief take on it (maybe I’ll post more on the subject later). I’m sure some older and much wiser saints may disagree with me and at some point I may disagree with younger, less mature self. I am under the opinion that sarcasm can be used well if it is used sparingly. While I understand that it can and is often used for the belittling of others, it can also be used in a self-deflating way. This is the best way I have seen sarcasm used. While the Bible uses sarcasm, I am hesitant to promote either Paul’s use of it in 1 Corinthian 4:8 or Elijah’s use of it in 1 Kings 18:27 as reasons to use it because I know my heart. I know that I have a tendency to use sarcasm to promote myself and how funny I can be rather than using it to deflate my ego. I know I can use sarcasm to poke fun at institutions and authority when I should simply keep my mouth shut and be in prayer for them. There are good uses of sarcasm, but if I’m honest, I rarely use sarcasm as I should. My sarcasm can easily become cynicism and pessimism. As a Christ follower, I am looking to honor him in my words and at this point in my life the way to do that is to use it sparingly. Perhaps your heart is better than mine and your sarcasm never has a cynical bent to it. As for me, I know myself well enough to know that I must refrain from using it far more than I currently do.