Cynicism and Joy

From Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son:

For me it is amazing to experience daily the radical difference between cynicism and joy. Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes. The call trust naive, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior. They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by “escapist emotions.” But in belittling God’s joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness.

People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God. They discover that there are people who heal each other’s wounds, forgive each other’s offenses, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and live in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God’s glory.

A quick reading of this passage may lead one to believe there is a false binary going on. “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who are cynical and those who have joy.” I think such a reading would be a mistake. The inclusion of the word “daily” in the first line implies Nouwen’s understanding that rather than becoming always cynical or always joyful, we tend to oscillate between these states under different circumstances and for varying periods of time.

Yet, at the same time, I imagine Nouwen would argue that we can develop habits in one direction more than the other: to become increasingly more cynical than joyful as time passes (or vice versa, more joyful than cynical), and so to be more evidently known as an optimist or a pessimist—even though we can’t really reduce people to mere labels.

Whatever the case, I’m unable to read this description with anything other than a feeling of, “Holy cow, that is so true.”