Hierarchy of Cynicism

“Love is giving what you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.”  Jacques Lacan

An interesting interchange between readers caught my attention and got me thinking about hierarchies of different sorts.  In response to a recent post about money (http://tiny.cc/ElS2t), in which I talked about wealth being ultimately spiritual, there was discussion in the comments about Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” as well as the struggle to provide for kids sometimes being a terrifying co-truth simultaneously existing alongside, but not being solved by, spiritual wealth.  As BigLittleWolf put it:

“We are invisible – a new kind of poor, we do not resemble the recognizable, statistically estimated, feel-good-in-your-heart-and-help-them “poor” in shelters and clinics.  We are too poor to pay for help and not yet on the street so “free social services” are denied.

Cynical? Hierarchy of cynicism?  Yes, and yes. And even that coexists with spirituality still intact. Go figure.”

The interchange ended with BWL joking that she and Travis should float a “hierarchy of cynicism” seminar, make a few bucks and pay a few bills.  I think that’s a cool idea.

It was Abraham Maslow, who posited a “hierarchy of needs” in which basic needs for nutrition, safety, self-esteem and community must all be met before one is free to pursue the higher strata of “self-actualization.”  On the other hand, some people with none of their basic needs met, as in Auschwitz for example, have still been found to make art, turning Maslow’s pyramid on its head.  Dostoevsky was known to take his earnings from a novel and go gamble them away specifically because he felt that he could not create from a place of comfort.  Herman Hesse ditched his family to follow his soul path and write brilliant novels (particularly Narcissus and Goldmund).  Michelangelo was supposedly more than a little bit of an asshole around the studio—flying into rages, smashing up works and excoriating assistants.

In other words, good, kind, spiritual people do not always end up with their just deserts; the opposites is where we find the real gold (there and in the shit), and so we might wrestle with the paradox of spiritual wealth underpinning material wealth and at the same time the vast unfairness of this often not seeming to be true in lived reality—with really good people having all sorts of loss and deprivation while scoundrels sleep peacefully snuggled up with their ill-gotten gains.  While I’m inclined to trust in karma, “instant karma” does not seem to be an operating principle in our world.

Given that we often hold great innovators, artists and captains of industry (or at least captains of loot) in high esteem, it could be argued that our socially constructed reality is a hierarchy of cynicism.  Parents and teachers may be unsung heroes (at least in my book), but our culture seems to view them as saps; in terms of power and social status, the engaged and struggling single parent just getting by is almost as invisible as the under-served children our world does indeed leave behind.

So, if we were to construct, or delineate, a “hierarchy of cynicism,” perhaps we would need two:  one for men and one for women, starting by cynically dividing the sexes.

For men, cynically speaking, sex would be the bottom of the pyramid—the basic need before which nothing else can happen; men think of sex every three seconds or something when they are young, much more than they think about food or safety.  Our emblem for the cynical male hierarchy might be the male praying mantis, which will keep mating with his lower body even as his lover literally devours his upper body. 

Next up:  ridiculous status symbols.  I was in a wine shop once where the owner tried to convince me that the most expensive wine in the shop, a Romanee Conti, was better than sex.  It was a purely academic discussion, as I had neither the means nor the interest to buy an obscenely expensive wine (expensive in part because Napoleon had to have it daily in his tent, a basic need for over-reaching would-be world conquerors).  When I told him that my brother-in-law had once poured a Romanee Conti (I was lying, it was the marginally less expensive neighbor, Domaine de la Romanee Conti Echezaux for those who care about that sort of thing) and that while it was good, I had to say that it was not better than sex.  He replied, “You haven’t had the ’85.” 

Leaving aside conjecture about the wine purveyor’s sex-life, I would still place Romanee Conti higher up on the pyramid of male cynicism, the hierarchy that I do not hope to climb.  Expensive wine, however, is just a placeholder for things like sports cars, yachts, private planes, owning sports teams on down to Rolexes and sneakers—signifiers, and compensators, for whatever is imagined to be missing.

Once needs for sex and status are met, I would guess that the cynical male’s (or natural male, depending on your own cynicism) next step up on the hierarchy is the need to break things.  This could be breaking up rocks, toys, cars or relationships, but men like to blow things up.  Thus, at the top of the pyramid of male cynicism is nuclear and chemical weapons, genocide, exploitative credit card companies (if there is another sort of credit card company, the spin doctors are free to cynically explain why their brand is different from those other, really bad ones) and unconscious wealth-gathering that either denies that this hurts human beings, or overtly relishes in it—humans pretending that they are some sort of great white sharks at the top of a cynical food chain.

Turning cynically to women, and I’d be glad to have women make a better and more cynical hierarchy for us to try not to live up to, but meanwhile I would hazard a guess that the basic cynical need of women is control.  Men are like sperm, billions of them blindly clustering around one egg.  Women are in charge, randomly accepting one sperm and the rest can swim around until their tails drop off and they die, unwanted, in the womb.  Men try to punish women for this at every turn, but the deeper fact is that women trump men in terms of real power, but men have trickily convinced us all that blowing things up is more powerful than making things. 

Next up the cynical ladder of needs for women would be non-sexual touch, particularly from men who are failing to get their own basic need for sex met on an every-five-minute basis.  Once needs for control and touch are met, the cynical apex of need for women would not be acquiring things, as men might cynically guess, but rather napping.  Some men are man enough to nap, but for women, it is a need, often unmet, that is particularly destroyed by children— one of the most noisome and expensive buzz-kill interlopers into the hierarchy of cynicism.

Given that men ultimately want to blow up the world while women would rather nap, makes me cynically chagrinned sometimes to be a man, although cynical men might say that I am less than a man for being a feminist, for caring, for nurturing.  At least I cling to my narcissism, and that (if I also don a cynical attitude) tends to get me free admission to any and all boys clubs—places where we can smoke cigars and talk about wanting women while actually huddling together in abject terror of them.

While I’ve taken a stab here, I sense my cynicism is tepid; BWL and Travis are the parents of this idea, but neither of their writings are particularly cynical.  Maybe it’s that those of us who actually care reach for cynicism as our defense against feeling powerless, or somehow weak for being outraged about unfairness, as if we’ll be mocked for our naiveté.  Maybe we just need space to hear and be heard, to dare not to make sense, to be contradictory and paradoxical, rather than straight-jacketed into our roles, our situations or our opinions.  Maybe we parents sometimes need to be liberated from the pressure of being always the one who sucks it up—maybe we will do it for our kids, but in front of each other we need to roll up our sleeves and get cynical, real and authentically connected to whatever we feel.  In the end, I think this does help us be our best Selves—by freeing us even from the tiresome pressure of always trying to be our best Selves… especially when so many so-called parents don’t even seem to try.

So, let’s dedicate today to valuing and recognizing our own cynicism in the hopes that we might use our tweaked consciousness to clarify our true values, and find the strength to live to them—and perhaps to deconstruct and disarm the cynicism of blindness and indifference that ultimately hurts us all, even those who are miserable in the midst of wealth.  To individuate is to balance and harmonize our own opposites—our trust in the universe along with our Job-like outrage at its unfairness.  While I write tongue-in-cheek, I am serious in my compassion for those parents floundering in the no-man’s (and women’s) land of the just-barely-making-it middle.

Parenting is very hard, especially when unsupported either emotionally and/or economically, and while I’m generally prone to an earnestly positive voice, today I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the rightfully cynical—but still in the service of encouragement and compassion for all our collective children. 

Namaste, Bruce


2 Responses to “Hierarchy of Cynicism”

  1. April Says:

    Thank you so much for this!! What a huge weight is lifted off the shoulders by someone simply acknowledging our need to rant, to cry, to feel wounded by the slights.

  2. Antisthenes Says:

    I have enjoyed your thoughtful, insightful posts the last couple of weeks having been sent in your direction by BigLittleWolf. You’ve got me thinking! You absolutely need to add “gold-digger” to the female heirarchy(woman here), although I did laugh out loud at ‘napping’ as the pinnacle of the ladder. In all seriousness, though, I believe Maslow’s hierarchy is best viewed as a continuum. At some point over our lives most of us had our basic needs met–not even necessarily at the same time–therefore giving us the knowledge of self-actualization, or how it is to be to ourselves and to each other. Who has all their needs met all of the time?!! So mundane! Having at one time the knowledge of what it is like when all needs have been met, hopefully holds us over a rough patch when a specific need is not currently being met or in danger of not being met–however, I am also an optimist. Perhaps explains why someone can be spiritually whole and still cynical. Community is so important, especially in these economic times.

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