What do you think is the single greatest spiritual and emotional problem facing college students? Loneliness? Actually, that’s a very good answer, but guess again. Selfishness? Maybe pride? Well, those are very real and very dangerous things, but they’re not quite what I’m thinking of. The answer, in my opinion, is cynicism; or, being overly-cynical and critical of everything. While I don’t think cynicism is the only problem college students face, it is worthwhile to ponder its reality, and, more importantly, its remedies. In this pondering, you might even find that cynicism is more interconnected with many other problems faced by Catholic Christians on a college campus than first expected.
Quick history lesson: Cynicism (from kunikos, “dog-like” in Greek) in the strictly classical sense, was a loosely defined school of philosophy that emphasized living in accordance with nature, in defiance of any societal-defined expectations for behavior. Diogenes and the Cynics, unsurprisingly, were largely shunned from the Athenian social square due to their unconventional and shameless beliefs and practices (this, indeed, was in accord with the very principles of Cynicism). They did, however, inform the beliefs of the Stoics, who would become more popular and have an even greater impact on our modern understanding of philosophy. End history lesson.
Lowercase-C cynicism, in the way we understand it today, has little to do with these ancient men beyond borrowing a few small parts of their philosophy. We may define it as a proclivity to believe that the people around us are exclusively self-interested, and thus against us. It also may be, as I will discuss at greater length, an incarnation of the very real vice and spiritual evil that is called despair.
The former understanding of cynicism is something that we (or at least, I) have tended to project at God. We project a belief that God is only interested in us only in some cutthroat crusade to make us aware of our failings, and catch us out when we are at our lowest. But, to that misconception of God, I say, have faith! God, incarnate as Jesus Christ, overcame the world for our sakes. God wants to give us grace, forgive us, and help us live fully. He is not out to catch us, or make us behave strictly a certain way, etc. No; he wants to forgive you of your sins, and invites you to be lead closer to his (perfect) life!
The other understanding, and the one I’m going to elaborate on a bit more, is cynicism as a type of despair. Despair, of course, is the vice that is directly inverse to the virtue of hope; this means that one of the greatest things we can do to combat cynicism is grow in hope.
Isolation within the Catholic life is common and, to some degree, expected. This goes double for students on college campuses, where much of the general culture seems to view the Catholic life as alien or even something to be opposed. I believe that at the Mount, our culture still retains some regard for the faith; however, as an experiment, I propose that the next time someone asks you a question like “what do you plan to do after you graduate?” answer: “I plan to pursue holiness, raise my family to be holy, and then become a saint.” I’ve tried it–even at a Catholic university like the Mount, it still earned me quite a few sideways glances. I can only imagine what this would look like if I went to a larger state university; the point is, it is common for Catholics, especially young Catholics, to feel cut off from the larger culture, and this creates a divide in our hearts. We want to grow in love for Christ and bring him to others, but we may feel that our efforts will bear no fruit. We may simply be overwhelmed with the many pressures we face and feel incapable of living a fulfilled life, in the Catholic sense.
In response, we must cultivate the theological virtue of hope. Now, hope is not a feeling. The virtue of hope disposes us to desire the kingdom of Heaven and keep our gaze on the glorified Body of Christ, regardless of the temporal forces that may obscure His presence and make Him less visible.
In our lives, we face certain barriers that prevent hope from taking hold of our hearts. Foremost among these is a repeated habit of sin. When mortal sin takes root in our hearts, and we don’t make every effort to uproot it to make room for God’s grace, the amount of hope we are capable of receiving is already limited. Another such barrier is when we avoid grace by placing more importance on the fake (i.e. social media, video games, self-indulgent habits) than on the real (God, as a matter of fact, is infinitely more real than we are). I will even make the claim that there is a danger in making classwork and academic advancement one’s highest priorities; this approach can lead to a disregard for sharing the Gospel, rejoicing in it, and remembering what it points us to.
Christ himself is hope personified. He alone has the power to completely overcome despair and cynicism and lead us into a fully hopeful life. Cultivating a relationship with Christ through the Eucharist and through daily prayer helps us to become better acquainted with Him, our living hope, and to overcome cynicism and despair. A daily holy hour is simply indispensable when it comes to overcoming the vice of despair. This should include spiritual reading – Holy Scripture is obviously great here, and I’ve been reading The Imitation of Christ over the last few months for specific guidance on how to grow in the life of grace and purge laxness from my spiritual life. Follow this with contemplative prayer (especially the Rosary!) and you will find yourself, if not outright filled with hope, at least reassured in your relationship with God that you have a time every day to lay down your cares and concerns to Him in prayer.
If there is one thing I can end on, it would be the exhortation to build the virtue of hope and to pray without ceasing; these are two practices that are entirely collaborative. If there is one antidote to cynicism that I could prescribe, it would be to pray daily, as much and as often as you can. Pray for the Church, the world, the poor, your loved ones, and your own holiness. This, indeed, is the antidote for almost any lingering spiritual ill.