cynicism, skepticism, optimism, realism (and the power of hope)

blog skepticism cyncism realismit’s good to be back! those 5 weeks flew by!  i missed you here, but it’s been so great to be off-line for a while and enjoy summer with my kids (i’ve got 5 of them home right now so it’s nuts around here but really fun) & a little lighter refuge schedule. so much happened in this past month that i can never catch up on, and i won’t even try, but i thought i’d start with a post that’s been swirling around in my head for a while now and i finally had a chance to write.  

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years ago the last word someone would have associated with me was “cynicism.” “hopeful, positive, and optimistic” were much better descriptors.  however, the truth is that cynicism was building for years after observing a pattern in churches we were part of that continually ignored pain, suffering & honesty.  i kept it at bay because i always figured out a way to live out what i believed in some small pocket of love.  and for a long time that was enough for me.  it wasn’t until my big-church-blow-up in 2006 that the cynicism-about-the-church dial moved to full tilt.

the dictionary definition of cynical “bitterly or sneerlingly distrustful, contemptuous, or pessimistic.” i think cynicism has its place.  honestly, if i wouldn’t have allowed myself to feel the range of how sad, angry, and disgusted i was with the “church” i don’t think i’d still be here.  faking optimism wasn’t an option.  playing nice would have been false.  trying to skip over painful feelings would have ruined me in the end.

but like so many other things, it’s easy to get stuck on either end of any continuum.  we are often more comfortable in pendulum swinging because it keeps things more clear & contained & predictable.  however, black or white, good or bad, hot or cold thinking is always very limiting.  if we think cynicism or cheery optimism are our only choices, we’re set up for either misery or constant disappointment when it comes to all-things-church.

skepticism is a few degrees to the middle of cynicism.  many of us who are rebuilding after deconstructing need to approach issues of church and faith in a more discerning way.  we can’t get wowed-in, sucked-in, charmed-in, convinced-in, shamed-in anymore.  we see things through more honest lenses.  however, when we are always skeptical, we tend to notice the worst first instead of the best.  we’re constantly being triggered and are wary of trusting anything and anyone. although i believe skepticism is more productive than cynicism, i still think it’s limiting and chokes off life. it creates a hardness of heart, a protection that prevents us from experiencing not only the bad but also the good.

but i definitely can’t use the word “optimism” when it comes to church.  i used to have a lot of it, but it was the unrealistic, naive kind that eroded over time.  i believe we are in worse shape than we even know, that many of the systems we’ve created and continue to perpetuate are never going to allow us to experience the kind of freedom & healing & equality & beauty that Jesus intended when he called his followers to be like him.

i have decided that a much healthier place for me to land is what i call “hopeful realism”, accepting things for what they are in a more realistic way while being open to possibilities.  

it doesn’t mean cynicism, skepticism, or optimism aren’t sprinkled in there, but realism helps me to see things from a more honest perspective, to accept what i can’t change and center on what i can (yes, i love that serenity prayer).  realism helps me not have a false hope that tomorrow all my dear & wise & amazing sisters will get a phone call offering them awesome ministry positions with equal pay and power that they deserve.  it helps me remember that my marginalized friends, while slowly making inroads, are far from being fully included just as they are.  realism helps me say with confidence that there are enough resources & time & heart & help to meet the overwhelming needs in each and every community & city & town & neighborhood, but these resources are not distributed properly because so many would rather go to church than be the church.  it helps me not feel totally crazy when i see what people are willing to be inconvenienced for (like standing in line for hours to buy a chicken sandwich) in the name of Jesus while countless people in their cities are in desperate need of food & shelter & love.

even though these realities can be so discouraging, they also remind me how desperate we are for change & Hope. 

cynicism is absent of hope.  skepticism deeply limits it.  naive optimism creates false hope.  but realism opens up the doors for the kind of deep hope i think God brings:  that there’s far more going on than meets the eye, that the ways of the world (and often “the church”) are not the ways of Jesus, and that miracles, no matter how big or small, are always possible. 

i don’t want to be a cynic, although it had its place.  i don’t want to spend all my days being so skeptical that i miss out on the good. and i don’t want to be a naive, cheery optimist who thinks things are much better than they really are.

rather, i want to live in a place that honors reality, embraces a more honest theology, and accepts the world’s crazy paradoxes, with all its good & bad, dark & light, ugliness & beauty.

i want to remain open and in awe of  the weird & wild & mysterious ways God moves, heals, transforms, redeems, restores even when i can’t see or understand it.  

and i want to be willing to be part of the change, no matter how hard or slow some of those changes might be.

how about you?  where do you fall on the cynic-skeptic-optimist-realist grid these days?

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ps: i had already written this piece when i saw the picture & quote below on facebook, but i thought it was appropriate (posted by the God article).


Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • This is beautiful.

    “rather, i want to live in a place that honors reality, embraces a more honest theology, and accepts the world’s crazy paradoxes, with all its good & bad, dark & light, ugliness & beauty.
    i want to remain open and in awe of the weird & wild & mysterious ways God moves, heals, transforms, redeems, restores even when i can’t see or understand it.
    and i want to be willing to be part of the change, no matter how hard or slow some of those changes might be.”

    This is where I find myself. I have to remind myself to talk about what I love and affirm goodness, rather than complaining about what I hate. Last week was kind of a sea change for me, putting myself more firmly in the middle, seeking freedom and justice, no matter the personal cost. I didn’t realize it until it was all over, but wow. Sometimes it’s the little things that change a person so profoundly.

    • beautiful! it is amazing, how little changes can be so profound. ps: disqus coming friday, btw!

  • Kathy!

    As a ninteen year old who has been on the faith journey for only a few years (four to be exact), but I think the changes in my outlook have changed quite rapidly in such a short timem especially in the past year. I once was able to identify myself as a naive optimist in the beginning of my faith journey, but then, after I went to the first Wild Goose festival in 2011, I became a skeptic and soon ended up a cynic after my existential crisis. I’ve come out of that, and these days, I find myself to be balancing on hopeful realist on most days. Some days, I still encounter the skeptical parts of me, especially in some church environments, and at times I lean on the side of being slightly more optimistic.

    I like being a “hopeful realist” because it allows one to be surprised and be glad and embrace the beauty of our journey in both the highs and lows. 🙂

    I feel like being cynical comes from a sense of pride. Not only that, I was called out a lot by one of my dear friends for my arrogance and unfair generalized criticisms. Those that i did life with humbled me, especially my friend Grace (HER NAME IS GRACE? ISN’T THAT BEAUTIFUL?) I thank the Lord for those friends! 🙂 I think being humbled by others, being surprised and seeing hope when I didn’t expect seeing it was what got me to soften my heart from that cynical stage. It is such a beautiful thing to have hope. 🙂

    • thanks so much for sharing, rachel. and i think so many of us here would say way to go on wrestling with some of these things at a far younger age than many of us did. it’s a rough ride, though, no matter the age. yeah, i am with you that a lot of what’s underneath cynicism is pride and underneath pride is fear/control. vulnerability/humility go hand and hand somehow and maybe that’s why we don’t like it because it’s scary. i love that word (and name) grace.

  • I’m pretty sure that I’d define some of those terms quite differently (“cynicism” and “realism” in particular), so… count me in the “critical, apocalyptic optimist” quadrant.

    • it’s good to be back & thanks for reading. i really liked your thoughts on the whole “what would happen if we had as much passion about chicken as we did about love/mercy/justice in the world…” imagine!

  • Spirit = Wind in Hebrew. So I took the liberty to paraphrase … The pessimist complains that the Spirit is blowing the wrong direction. The optimist expects the Spirit to change and blow in his direction. The realist is hopeful. He lifts and trims his sails trusting by faith that wherever the Spirit sends him will bring him joy and a life worth living. Love. Love. Love (that you are BACK!!).

  • thank you so much for this article. I am in the process of healing from an abusive controlling “christian cult church” and so appreciate your honosty.

    • hard stuff. you’re not crazy and you’re not alone. glad you are on a healing path. may you find greater and greater freedom as you keep walking this direction.

  • Kathy,

    This is beautiful! I am right there too, in the radical center of God’s will! Thank you! LOVE THIS! Glad your back! 🙂

  • She’s Baaaaaaaaaaaaaackkkkkkkkkkkkkk!!!! lol

    So cool to have you back my friend and such a wonderful post to get back in the saddle again with!!! I like to call myself a *hopeful universalist* wanting everyone to be in the Kingdom in the end. I agree with almost all you share Kathy and hope realistio lil pockets of love will continue to sprout here there and everywhere!!! Did you watch any good movies on your hiatus?? 😀

    • hey my friend, thanks for sharing. you bring hope wherever you go. well, haven’t seen as many as i would have liked but hit a few. definitely not my summer movie marathon, ha ha. my son got me hooked on a few shows on hulu/netflix so that’s been fun.

  • i think i am a realist, but for me it looks like “the reality is things will never change”
    but, Jesus is Hope so i will press on and dream of a new day

    • yeah, i am with you. i think that “never” word is the one that gives me trouble. the reality is that things aren’t changing the way we hope for, though, that’s for sure, and reckoning with that pain continues to be really hard for me. it is so easy to give up, i think about it almost every day, but i am glad we haven’t yet. it will be interesting to see what happens in 20, 30, 40 more years. the problem is we’re running out of time but maybe some of our dreams will be a reality for our babies 🙂

  • Hi Kathy

    This is so much the journey I’ve been on since 2006 and I have come to much the same place as you – I like your description of ‘hopeful realism’. I tend to try and ‘love the people in spite of’ and recognise that reconciliation can only occur if both sides forgive. That’s realism too. Cynicism is so destructive and Hope is so important.

    I’ve also found that it’s important to recognise where we’re motivated by negative feelings (for example, not taking any decisions or actions based on a negative motivation but because of a positive reason or motivation). That runs alongside giving grace by allowing people the benefit of the doubt, even where they’ve directly hurt us.

    I am beginning to realise that in this second half of my life (as described by Richard Rohr), the Peace that Jesus brings is such a gift and I am learning to refuse to allow others to disturb that. If they do, it’s often a sign to me that something, somewhere is wrong. This recognition isn’t cynicism or self-protection. It’s a dynamic rooted in the Spirit that changes atmospheres and, unsurprisingly, confronts anger or aggression or pain really well, sometimes without even language…

    Such a privilege to read your blog. Thanks.

    • thanks, jane. i love that richard rohr! as i was reading your comment it made me think of how much of how we react is in response to avoiding pain. it is so true, the more cynical/skeptical/overly optimistic i am, the more i am somehow trying to avoid pain. realism is much more painful. but the beauty of God’s-spirit-at-work–always working in the pain…thanks for reading and taking time to share. good stuff.

  • I love your view and believe that is the right view. When I am unable to view it as that, I think that I have moved away from a cynic to a skeptic and I think that is at least a positive step in my view.

    I hate that I am a skeptic but over the years from church positions to being with individuals who have struggled mightly, I am a skeptic that the words given are true and that all will go accordingly to plan.

    It is an article that I passed onto facebook, because they are words that need to be read. Thanks for the article.

    • thanks, jeff. when we’ve seen a lot up close and personal it’s pretty hard not to be cynical/skeptical (optimism left a long time ago, ha ha). and i do think skepticism is a healthy thing as part of our processing and we can’t just skip over it!

  • I was the “eternal optimist” for so many years. I actually feel that ‘other’ people had a harder time adjusting to me being a (hopeful-like that!) realist than I ever did. I can honestly admit as a self-proclaimed optimist it was so easy to ignore everything outside my little bubble (and even some things right inside it!)-I could never go back. I would never want to. I also don’t believe Christ was an optimist….He lived Hope. He was hope in a Real world.

    Thanks for the article.

    • oh i can relate to that. people really liked me a lot better when i was an eternal optimist!

  • This post is tracking with things I have been thinking about … It is common to be labelled “cynical” if you step away from systems in order to heal. This will help me focus on being a “hopeful realist” … I love it.

    I also want to say that I am comforted and encouraged by all the other commenters. Your voices speak life and encouragement to my heart, and I thank each of you for having the courage and vulnerability to add your voices to this conversation.

  • thanks, mar, the comments here are really encouraging to me, too. oh i agree with you, “cynical, bitter, angry” are sometimes the first words that gets ascribed to anyone who starts to step away from an existing system. it’s very limiting and unfair (and often hurts).

  • great and timely post kathy! i ended up blogging about cynicism today. so glad i revisited this post of yours. i love where you’ve landed, Hopeful Realism. I’m not there yet, but I’m on my way.

    Bless ya my friend!


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