Many have commented on Conan O'Brien's farewell speech on last Friday's Tonight Show (if you've been living on a desert island for the past month, NBC moved O'Brien out of his Tonight Show hosting gig to make room for Jay Leno to move back to the 11:30 p.m. slot). Despite having been treated rather shabbily (by most accounts) by NBC, O'Brien insisted on taking a very positive attitude toward the whole brouhaha. Here's the takeaway quote, transcribed by me as accurately as I could from the actual video:
All I ask of you is one thing, and I'm asking this particularly of young people who watch. Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism - for the record, it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen.
In playing with the thesaurus feature on my computer dictionary, I turned up these gems: Cynical = pessimistic, negative, world-weary, disillusioned, disenchanted, jaundiced, sardonic. That's a pretty good list. And who hasn't felt a bit pessimistic lately? Who isn't weary of the world? And when it comes to either politics or religion (let alone pop culture), who isn't disillusioned, disenchanted, or jaundiced?
When we look at the world, it's easy to be cynical. In fact, it often seems to be the safe route. Cynicism protects us from all the pain, hurt, and messiness out there. It's safe, and it's even considered a bit cool, to respond to what seems to threaten you with a hearty sardonic attitude. (FYI, I looked that word up too just to make sure I got it exactly right: Sardonic = grimly mocking or cynical.)
Here's the thing, though. Cynicism isn't big and tough and fearless. It's little and cowardly and fearful. By putting on the carapace of cynicism we think we're protecting ourselves from the world, when in fact what we're doing is shutting out life and people and all that actually matters in a misguided attempt at self-protection.
Some time ago I wrote about a teaching from the Buddhist tradition known as Shambhala. I thought it was somewhat recently that I had done so, but it was actually about four years ago, so I figure I can plagiarize myself a little bit. In Chogyam Trungpa's book The Sacred Path of the Warrior, he describes the essential part of the sacred warrior as being his or her heart. And what do you think is the essential characteristic of that heart? How must an ordinary heart be changed, transformed, to make it a warrior's heart? You might expect that it needs to be strong, or solid, or steadfast, or perhaps full of courage (insert your best Cowardly Lion impression here).
But no. What this Shambhala teaching says is that the essence of a warrior’s heart is that it is broken. Broken, soft and vulnerable. Only with a heart that is already broken, open wide, vulnerable, flexible, pliable, moveable, is a warrior able to go out and do battle in the world.
Lest my Christian readers dismiss this teaching as being suitable only for practitioners of other faiths, I'll go way back into my memory vault of contemporary Christian music for this little gem of a song by the late Keith Green, My Eyes Are Dry.
Oh, what can be done for an old heart like mine?
Soften it up with oil and wine.
The oil is you, your spirit of love.
Please wash me anew in the wine of your blood.
I know, there's the Christian obsession with the blood metaphor again. Let's work with the oil and wine for now. These both act as lubricants, albeit wine's lubricating qualities are more metaphoric. Oil loosens things, makes them unstuck. Wine, well, wine can sometimes loosen the tongue a bit too much, perhaps, but in the right quantity and setting it can warm and loosen the heart. Having just watched Julie and Julia, I was struck once again by Julia Child's joie de vivre, her passion, and her fearlessness. When it came to flipping an omelette on national television, she told her viewers that they just needed to have the courage of their conviction in order to succeed. Of course, she memorably failed in that first omelette flip, but she continued on undaunted, piecing together the remnants of her half-cooked eggs in the pan and turning out what to any observer looked to be a very credible French-style omelette.
So there's a sampling of my spiritual teachers – Trungpa, Green, and Child. Funny enough, out of all of them Child probably lived the most exemplary life (personal struggles seem to be inherent in being a declared spiritual guru). But they all came back to the same idea. A courageous heart is an open heart, a vulnerable heart, one that embraces all it encounters, even those who would do it harm. To a cynical society it may seem a foolish way to live, but in truth it is the only way to actually be alive.