There have been times when I've thought of myself as a bit of a curmudgeon (or at least a curmudgeon-in-training). These feelings wash over me most often when I'm at professional gatherings where the conversation seems to be going nowhere. My critical self jumps up and says, "Mutter, grumble, if someone else was running this, we'd be done by now! And, in the old days, before PowerPoint presentations ruled the day, we'd have a real conversation about this issue rather than fighting with technology! Harrumph!" And, of course, it's best when there's a fellow curmudgeon sitting next to me with whom I can "curmudge".
The other day, however, I had reason to check out the real definition of "curmudgeon" (more on that in a minute). Both Wiktionary and the on-line Merriam-Webster Dictionary provide the above definition. And so I've had to re-think my self-diagnosis. I don't think I'm "ill-tempered"; I generally chafe at being characterized as "old" (even if I might be getting there). I may, however, occasionally have "stubborn ideas and ideas" -- that's where I've focused my "curmudgeonliness." And, so, if I'm not a curmudgeon, what's going on?
It seems that many folks confuse (or equate) "curmudgeon" and "cynic". I may be one of them. That is, my curmudgeonly tendencies may be more occasions of cynicism than a general "condition." "Cynicism", at its ancient Greek roots, was a noble philosophy that simply valued virtue as the greatest good. And so the Cynics reveled in exposing foolishness, either directly or indirectly. I kind of like that characterization!
Nowadays, however, a "cynic" is often less faithful to that ancient tradition, and is alternately defined as "a faultfinding captious critic; especially: one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self interest" They can be acerbic and unhelpful, maybe even downright nasty. (I hope I'm not often that kind of cynic, although I can occasionally recognize "faultfinding captious critic" in the mirror.)
We usually can recognize a cynical comment when we hear it. And one of my frequent reactions is to disregard, or discount, the comment as having little value other than releasing the speaker's emotion or disgust. But the other day I ran across a very provocative suggestion. In a book entitled Appreciative Leadership, in a chart with the heading "Eight Surprising Sources of Positive Potential", the third "source" was "Cynicism". The suggestion was "Behind every cynical statement there is a dream wanting to be realized. Ask about the dream; listen for it and reflect it."*
That turned my thinking on its head! Not only my thinking about cynical comments in general, but in my own self-characterization as either a "curmudgeon" or "cynic." What is the dream that lies beneath my criticism? What about the dreams that lie behind others' comments? Are we all frustrated by not seeing our hopes and ideals realized? And the only way we feel we can respond is by making "snarky" comments . . . and doing nothing.
Dreams and visions are part of every religious tradition. Sometimes they provide clarity for a current situation. Other times they provide direction, or an alternative to the current reality. All need to be heard; all need to be mined for the gems that they contain. What a gift it might be for me to spend some time in self-reflection when I find MY cynical, curmudgeonly, tendencies come to the fore. What an even larger gift it might be seek for the dreams behind others' comments?
*Whitney, Diana, Amanda Trosten-Bloom and Kae Rader. Appreciative Leadership: Focus on What Works to Drive Winning Performance and Build a Thriving Organization (McGraw Hill: 2010), 22.