To Grinch or Not to Grinch

Yes, I know. It’s January,  but the grouchy green guy who sneers at all the stupidly cheerful Whos has been on my mind lately. For a writing class, we had to read Ernest Hemingway’s A Cat in the Rain, and the instructor noted–after praising nearly every word Hem wrote–that the author did not appear to have a warm regard for his characters.

It’s a very short story, and as I slogged through it, all I could think was, “Not short enough.” The husband is a lazy, sexist drip. The wife a cross between Blanche DuBois and June Cleaver (in a bad way). The hotel staff is alternately obsequious and exploited. The cat is so dumb it gets caught out in the rain and can find only the dubious protection to be had beneath a sidewalk cafe table.

As I’m reading through the comments of my classmates, who found the story marvelous, the instructor’s analysis marvelous, the prose-craft marvelous… I’m thinking, “Who would want to be in this story world? The author is relentlessly negative, condescending, belittling… BLECH.”

But then I thought about every piece of news “commentary” I’ve seen for the past five years. Cynicism sells. Cynics come across as pragmatic, rational, and unbefuddled by sentiment. Our words for optimist and optimism by contrast–Pollyanna, dreamer, rose-closed glasses, idealist–all connote foolishness to some degree.

But that perception–of cynicism equating with wisdom–is wrong. Though most people think cynics are smarter than optimists, and cynics must excel at spotting lies and charlatans, the opposite is true. Clever folks  (at the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab), have done the research, and found that cynics, because they tend to see everybody as a potential cheat, crook, or liar, can’t pick the real miscreants out of the crowd. Cynics tend to test with lower cognitive function (euphemism alert), and they tend to earn less than people who test as optimistic.

Cynicism might be a neat trick for provoking “engagement” on social media, but cynics are the last people we should regard as oracles or prophets. This is relevant to me because I have a great imagination for scary things. I can see all the ways the planet is going to die, how technology is wrecking democracy, and why I will end up living under a bridge with only a tin cup and one stinky set of ill-fitting clothes to my name.

But I also have the ability to wear whatever hat my tribe is missing. As a younger sibling in a big family, I developed the ability to be a cheerleader is if nobody is cheering, a realist if everybody is under-budgeting, and a workhorse if everybody else just too tired to keep plowing. This is a common trait of younger siblings, and it means that–more than most people–I have a choice as to whether I lurk up on Mt. Crumpit snarking to my pets, or join the singing down in Whoville.

I believe in love, and so I hope I take every opportunity to sing with the Whos rather than snark with the green guy, despite my gift for imagining calamities.

Who strikes you as wise? How do they create that impression? I’ll add three names to my ARC list for A Tryst by the Sea!

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13 comments on “To Grinch or Not to Grinch

  1. Actually, based on so many of your posts, you strike me as wise. You are thoughtful and provide reasons for your thinking and I always think more after reading your posts.
    I used to believe I was a cynic but actually I’m not. I try to be a realist but I’m kind of an optimist about certain things. And, like you, I do tend to worry about the worse possible outcomes (maybe we’ll meet under that bridge).

  2. I freely admit that I’m a cynic. Even though I know all the science about why it’s worse to be one, and have tried many of the suggested “fixes”. But it it firmly entrenched, no matter how much meditation and gratitude practice.

    I am also suspicious of hopeful people. *awkward laugh*
    Some of the meditation teachers I listen to are a good example of hope for my battered soul. Maybe with enough years if practice I will reach that level of thought too.

  3. This may be weird, but the teacher of my seniors’ exercise class strikes me as very wise. He is only a bit older than me (around 76 to my 70), but he has lived in so many places, both in the US and abroad, and has experienced so much in the world, from a military career as a young man, to computer programming in middle age, to a grandpa and fitness instructor as a senior. My husband and I joke that he tells the best stories, always sensitive to the differing political and religious beliefs of the students and usually hilarious. He has been a personal trainer to many people even older than those of us in the class (we range in age from 50 to 81), and has been open to soaking up wisdom from those encounters. The physical exercise in our three times a week encounters are only part of the benefit we attain in his classes.

  4. For some unpleasant reasons, I am doing a lot of reading on and work with trauma resources right now. I am mulling over and over and returning to repeatedly, the fact that under threat our first response is social engagement (yelling for help, sounding an alarm etc) THEN the fight / flight or collapse. Those Whos had a great deal of company. The Grinch was pretty isolated. What do we do now that many are suffering in isolation but also from isolation, to build hopeful engagement to find solutions? When we look for community among others through cynicism (or through trauma based identity apparently according to what I’m reading) we solidify an identity that limits us from growing beyond it. Just mulling these things over.

  5. I nominate the linguist John McWhorter as being the wisest person I know. Not personally, of course.

    We’ve taken a few of his courses from the Teaching Company and he writes opinion pieces for the New York Times. He’s also written many books–gave each of my sons one or two of them for Christmas this year. Just brilliant.

  6. I’m going to hold up my now-deceased father who equipped me beautifully for life. Here are a few of his lessons that have stood me in good stead:

    * Whoever told you life was fair was a damned liar.

    *Prep for the worst, then expect the best.

    *Cast your bread on the waters without expecting anything in return. If you do & do it regularly, you’ll be amazed at the blessings that flow your way from unexpected directions when you least expect it.

    *Charity doesn’t count if anyone finds out it was you. You’re not doing it for recognition. You’re doing it because it’s needed & you’ve got enough you can share.

    *If it’s hungry, feed it.
    If it’s naked, clothe it.
    If it’s homeless, build it one.
    If it’s lonely, love on it.
    All the world’s great religions agree on this. It’s the man-made add-ons that get in the way.

    *When in doubt, do the kind thing.

    *Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment. It’s our failure to learn from our mistakes that’s unforgivable.

    And this last one he passed along from my grandfather, who died before I was born: “When you’re young, you tend to think your parents don’t know much. But it’s amazing how, the older you get, the smarter you realize they are.”

  7. Wise People: Walter Cronkite, Maya Angelou, Fred Rodgers…

    Then again, I have noticed that powerful wisdom as I define it comes from all over the place. When I am in tune I hear amazing things (or see them) from very unlikely people and situations. In order to be “in tune” I find I must struggle against cynicism. When cynicism is in control I feel less vulnerable, which is nice, but I also miss all that amazing input that comes “out of the mouths of babes” for instance.

    When I am able to stay open and in tune I can feel real hope that there is a way through the bog we humans are currently in.

  8. I think there are thousands of wise people swirling in my head, but my first choice is my best friend. She sees the best in people, always has a kind word (or fifty) for me, is one of the smartest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, and is kind and generous.
    She is brilliant and fun!

  9. PS (with my apologies to any Hemingway fans) – I’m not a fan… I’m quite sure I already dislike the story without having read it. If the reader can’t connect with or engage with any characters, then the story cannot be emotionally absorbed and, therefore, IMO, it isn’t a good’un. I’m sure making dislikable characters is necessary on some level, but having a WHOLE story of them is just a disaster waiting to happen.
    There’s a quote that goes something like this, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” I think it applies here.
    I read Hemingway too early in life to really understand his stories, so maybe I should read again and see if my opinion would change… but, I’ve had an aversion to him for a long, long time.

  10. I was an idealistic romantic when i was younger – often wrong but never in doubt – but during my twenties and thirties i was slowly disillusioned by, oh probably just the world and the small minds of some people i let influence me too much.
    Sometimes i find myself being cynical now – i don’t particular like it or equal it with being realistic. I want to be a realist, and still maintain a good deal of joy and hope, and when i recognize these cynical thoughts I really try to get them untangled so I can find the real issue – old hurts and disappointments and so on. At least I have my self-reflection. But I still have these instant cynical thoughts when other people tell me of something: How they met an old flame from college and rekindled a relationship, or how they want to quit their job and settle on Bali..
    Probably why I read mostly romance now (and fantasy, sci fi), I need to kindle my inner romantic who is still reaching for the stars.
    Who is wise? I had a teacher in high school who talked to us as humans, not children, who valued personal opinion and thought over preconceptions and what the textbook said. He was wise I think.
    Lots of people are wise, most are probably keeping it to themselves. A lot of writers are wise, at least it feels that way, when they can describe the human condition and experience so it touches lives and feels real and authentic. You are certainly wise, Grace.
    Maybe even me, a little bit. I don’t think it is 0 or 1, maybe it is a gradual process.

  11. I agree! A truly wise person sees and acknowledges bad things around them or in them- but instead of shouting out more negativity, they bring action and positive solutions!