Cynicism and Hope

By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist
Friday, February 26, 2010

What sort of species is this? What are we made of, really?

Here is what you already know: We are preternaturally jaded and fearful, burned-out to the core. We are ever at the mercy of our myriad dreams of destruction and death, ravaging us like salivating demonhounds in the night. And not in the good way.

Poll after poll, study after study says the human animal is a fragile, troubled creature. Our bodies are a million ways amazing, but they are no match for the ruthless machinations of time and industry, freeway crashes and health care collapse. We are held together by rubber bands and duct tape, shot through with 10,000 prescription meds, therapies and surgeries, as we offer a thousand nervous prayers for that unsettling chronic pain to please, please, please subside, just a little.

Poisons abound, in our food, furniture, the very air we breathe. We are crammed like a Texas Wal-Mart with so many chemicals and toxins, afflicted by so many ailments and mental illnesses that it would take a book the size of Freud’s fetish dungeon to list them all.

What’s more, we keep creating new ones, inventing and defining amazing ailments to suffer from. You ever seen a copy of the DSM-IV? A medical encyclopedia? The ingredient list on a bag of Chee-tos? Sweet diabetic Jesus. Is anyone truly healthy, even keeled, just right? Don’t ask your doctor.

It’s not just us. Oh how we despise and mistrust our leaders, our own government, as well. Here’s a poll: fully 86 percent of us think our government is broken at a very deep level, and fully 86 percent of us are exactly right. “What sort of insane system is this?” we like to wail into the Void. “Who the hell came up with such a nefarious scheme? Oh right.”

But wait. What have we here? Aww, goddammit. That’s right — it’s the flipside, the other half, the perky everlasting upswing to your ever-depressing downward spiral. Who the hell let all this eternal sunshine in here? Guess we’ll just have to make the best of it.

And that’s exactly what we do. For here is another set of polls and surveys, studies and insights that reveal, happy birthday and wouldn’t you know it, that we are one hopeful, perpetually optimistic creature of joy and positivism, always looking on the bright side, always hoping for a better outcome, the yappy little dog wagging its tale at the approaching hurricane.

Here is the selfsame aforementioned poll, revealing that, despite how 86 percent think government is totally busted, 81 percent also think it can be nicely fixed. Yes, really.

Which is curious indeed, if only because, by most measures, our government was broken a priori, from the moment of inception, when it first rolled out of the factory. “Fixing” it, then, would seem to require nothing short of exploding the whole goddamn thing, starting from scratch and not letting a single corporate executive, politician, military general, teabagger or banking honcho within a million miles of the drawing board.

No matter. Optimism is, apparently, in our wiring, our genetic code. Hope springs eternal. Eternity springs more hope. Obama nailed this tone perfectly in his campaign, tapping the innate positivism vibe better than any candidate in a generation, mostly because he (arguably) actually believes it. What a sucker. Or not.

That’s the cool part, really: It didn’t feel like the typical charade, it wasn’t a lie. It’s genuine, that hope, a verifiable scientific fact. It’s also, if you strip away the fluff and Oprah and Jesus, quite the gorgeous reminder of our inherently divine nature. Truth is, we’ve done the I-predict-a-better-future thing since Adam checked out Eve in her newly sinful state and went, oh hell yes.

So of course we do silly things like try to measure hope and happiness, to quantify it and define it or develop iPhone apps for it, and we say inane statements like “I just want to be happy,” even though most of us have little clue as to what that vague place might look like, how to attain it, or even if it’s something to be attained at all, as opposed to what the mystics have been telling us for, oh, about 5,000 years.

Which is: You don’t strive for happiness, silly one. One does not attain bliss, or enlightenment, or godhood. You simply step into it, as a river. You simply become aware of it, like suddenly becoming aware of the tongue in your mouth. Hi. I’ve been here all along. Let’s go lick something.

It’s about consciousness. One billion of our fellow bipeds live in filthy, high-density slums on pennies per day. No running water, no Wi-Fi, no $5 lattes. Yet, shockingly, numerous studies reveal slum-dwellers to be, well, if not happy, or at least not nearly as miserable as you might assume. They’re not nearly as miserable as, say, your wealthy McMansion neighbor, with his Porsche Cheyenne Turbo and two pissy over-entitled kids and three expensive therapists and daily thoughts of apocalypse and flamethrower and suicide. Amazing.

Hope is everywhere, when you dial into it. Endless are the articles, books, websites detailing the stuttering progress of our species, the genius thinkers, the hopeful invention, the thing that could rescue us all from oil dependency or cancer or environmental destruction for about 89 cents per unit, if only we could (blank blank massive trillion-dollar investment).

“Look on the bright side, wary pilgrim,” these stories all seem to wink. “We live in miraculous times. The circus rolls on. Who the hell knows what the future holds? Also, you could be dead right now. Shut up and get on with it.”

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I all you have is cynicism and bitterness, the world grins its most ominous grin and serves you a whole lot more. Conversely, if all you have is perky lightness and fluffy love, well, you are perhaps living a lie as well, your Jungian dark side hidden and ignored and potentially — or rather, certainly — explosive.

So then, do you dance between the extremes? Do you blend and commingle like the trickster bartender of your own sacred life? Do you try to stay hovering in that sweet, sticky interstitial zone of yes and yum and dammit, ever aware and questioning, yet also ever certain, at a very deep level, that the world, that humanity, can and will get better?

Which way do you lean? Have you already tipped all the way over? It’s OK. There’s always hope.

Mark Morford

Mark Morford’s column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SFGate. To join the notification list for this column, click here and remove one article of clothing. To get on Mark’s personal mailing list (appearances, books, blogs, yoga and more), click here and remove three more. His website is right here.

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