In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, we get the story of Philip and Nathanael. Philip comes to his friend and tells him that
We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. John 1:45
Nathanael's response, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” sounds like the Chandler Bing of the New Testament. “Could this man BE any more Nazarene?”
Christ, who knows Nathanael perfectly, saw through his ironic persona and identified him immediately:
Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! John 1:47
In whom there is no guile! Oh. Wow. What a compliment! What high praise!
Nathanael, impressed perhaps by the Savior's ability to see to the heart, abandons his witty cynicism and confesses:
Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. John 1:49
I have loved this story since I was a child, not only because my name is Nathanial, not only because I have a bent toward the sarcastic, but because I would love to be called “Nathanial, in whom there is no guile!”
Think for a moment: What if Nathanael had stayed under that fig tree? What if he had let his dismissive attitude stop him from following Philip?
This is the danger of sarcasm, of cynicism. Sarcasm feels like a way to deal with a world that is hard, that is trying to hurt us. In reality, cynicism and sarcasm are a form of guile in which we are lying to ourselves about the world around us, and in so doing, cut ourselves off.
In shielding ourselves from disappointments and distresses, what do we miss out on? The answer, it seems, is everything.
C.S. Lewis knew this. Said he:
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. from 'The Four Loves' emphasis added
Shakespeare knew this. Hamlet remarked that Denmark was a terrible prison, and his friends disagreed. Hamlet conceded the point:
Why, then, 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. (Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2)
Hamlet was ready to admit that Denmark could be a prison for him, but not for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They were in the same country, standing right next to each other. But to him it was the worst dungeon in all the world, while to them it was...well, perhaps he wasn't ready or willing to consider what it was to them.
It's easy to dislike things. It's a “safe” position, intellectually. Everything on this earth is imperfect, so we can mock anything. We could ask “Can there any good thing come out of NBC/Marvel/Apple/Google/Novels/Comics/Your Favorite State to Dump On/Your favorite country to dump on?”
What does it get us? What good does it do us?
Hamlet was fictional, and Shakespeare built Hamlet's prison around him. But how many people are living in a prison they built themselves? How many people have made it impossible for themselves to find joy in anything, because they've become so adept at heaping scorn on everything?
C.S. Lewis and Shakespeare were both talking about the same thing:
Anhedonia: inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities. (Oxford Dictionary of English)
What's the solution?
I would suggest that there are two qualities we could foster in ourselves that would help:
And they are tightly connected.
Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child... Matthew 18:4
My youngest child is amazed and delighted by everything. Why not? The world is pretty amazing! From her perspective the world is mountains and the moon and unicorns! She can shout “Alexa, play 'happy people'” and her favorite song comes on instantly! And there's brothers to play with and dinner to eat and milk to drink and a trampoline to jump on and a plush dragon to snuggle and how could all these things exist in a world and you still call it a “prison”?
There are many people who don't have these nice things and we as adults need to be mindful that we are doing what we can to improve their situation. But does my ennui over the plight of someone I've never met improve that person's life? I would suggest that it is easier to enact positive change from a place of positivity, a place of child-like, Nathanael-like guilelessness.
So we need to become as a little child. If we see something that is interesting or impressive we need to say that it's impressive or interesting. We need to start from the position that the world around us is impressive, then work to make it more impressive for everyone.
Also, people are impressive. My youngest may be shy around people she hasn't met yet, but she's not afraid of them. We are teaching our children to be careful, not to follow strangers, not to get into vehicles without letting parents know, not to be foolish. But we aren't teaching them to fear everyone.
Most people are good. We know this, subconsciously. If we actually thought everyone else on earth was terrible we would never go outside. On some level we have accepted this, or else we have shut down completely. And our internal sense is right! Statistically, this is the safest time to be alive in recorded history. Whenever your childhood was, be it ten years ago or thirty, there was more violent crime then than there is now.
Yes we have urgent problems. Yes there are things we need to fix in our society. I'm not ignoring nor downplaying these things.
But it's okay for us to be grateful for the blessing of being alive right now. We can shed the ineffective armor of sarcasm and be honestly, humbly open to the blessings that surround us even as we seek to improve the world further.