In my last piece, I wrote about how my friend Mark has the right amount of cynicism to enhance his writing.
I think I may have the wrong amount. Not for writing, but for life.
Two weeks ago my wife Sonja and I took our daughter Molly to the beach. Sonja supervised while Molly swam. I took over when Molly toddled to the playground. When I glanced back at Sonja I saw her talking to an older man I did not know. They seemed engrossed in conversation. A couple of minutes later I looked again. It wasn’t a conversation. Sonja was on the receiving end of a monologue.
Molly scampered back to the water and I followed. We built sand castles, waded up to her waist and splashed around. When we packed up ten minutes later Sonja was still being talked at. Molly and I walked over and Sonja introduced me to the man. Probably the first words she’d spoken in fifteen minutes. He was in his seventies. Fit. Amiable. We exchanged pleasantries. I didn’t stick around.
Later, Sonja told me she’d enjoyed talking to him. He’d led a fascinating life. Military service, law enforcement, travel, successful children.
My response – “I wonder if anything he said was true?”
Sonja is kind, smart, and a good judge of character. She believed he was truthful.
I hope she’s right.
My cynicism may be a product of being a cop for almost 20 years. Or maybe I became a cop because it’s a profession where cynicism is a necessary tool. People lie to the police. Normal people. All the time. “I only had two beers officer. I’m fine to drive.” Or, “no I didn’t hit my wife, she fell and hurt herself.” Regular people sometimes do awful things, and, not surprisingly, don’t want to be arrested.
I want to believe people. Whether I’m speaking to them at work, or along a beach in Shawnigan Lake, somehow, my first instinct remains to do so. That inclination remains deep within me.
But I’ve developed a filter. A combination of gut-feeling and analytical evaluation.
It’s a necessary filter at work. It can be helpful in everyday life. But it colours the way I see the world, and I’m not sure I like that. It’s a short step from cynicism to negativity and anger.
A week later, Sonja, Molly and I were in a different park in a different city. Molly played, while we socialized with a friend.
A woman I did not know joined the conversation. A mother, she too was there with her child. I listened while this mother, and our friend talked about children, and nature.
The mother steered the conversation to how this park which we all stood on was on “stolen land” and how she struggled with explaining that concept to her daughter. The mother assumed everyone present agreed.
I didn’t. Or, perhaps more accurately I agreed but with a giant asterisk. Pick anywhere on the globe where humans live and look back in time – sometimes ten years, sometimes ten thousand – and chart the history of civilizations, populations, and borders constantly changing. Nations and nationalities rise and fall, merge and move, live together in peace and devour each other in conflict. History is complicated and messy. Like life.
I didn’t speak up in the park. I was not cynical about this mother’s sincerity. Far from it. Her convictions were heartfelt and sincere.
But I was cynical about her assuming that my friend and I agreed with her premise.
Which made me angry. Quickly. So I said nothing.
It is not my intention to write about Canada’s Native population and the sad and tragic history which has resulted in so much suffering. Except, I will say this. I believe that one of Canada’s great strengths is our multiculturalism. Not the theory of multiculturalism, but the reality of it. We have built a nation in which ethnic groups and nationalities from all over the world live together. And it works pretty well, most of the time. Except our First Nations aren’t part of that. And I’m not sure that we are taking any meaningful steps to address that. I read and hear much about reconciliation. I worry that it is an empty word, comprised of well meaning gestures, and ten or twenty years from now, nothing will have changed.
I read my own words, and worry too, that they lack compassion.
That I am too quick to dismiss the suffering of others.
That I am too willing to believe that a nice man lied to my wife on a beautiful day in the hot sun along a quiet beach.
That instead of remaining silent in the park, I should have spoken with that mother. Engaged with her point of view. Challenged my own assumptions. Opened my mind and considered that maybe she is right and I am wrong.
I worry that I have the wrong amount of cynicism.