The Making of a Cynic: When Experiences Wound

Our family backgrounds impact our childhood and adult lives profoundly. A new book I had the opportunity to edit and shepherd through the publishing process these last 8 months is The Spacious Heart: Room for Spiritual Awakening, by Donald Clymer and Sharon Clymer Landis (Herald Press, 2014).

A complete idealist, this child’s heart was as open and wide as the sky above. In her 11 years she had tried to harden, wise up, become cynical and tough.

One of the things that makes this book special is it was written by a brother-and-sister combo from a very large family. So large that it was like two families: the older set of siblings, which Don was in, and the younger set of siblings including Sharon. Consequently, even while they were all at home they didn’t have a lot of real interaction. This pattern carried into adulthood.

Then one day they both discovered they were highly interested in spiritual direction, and separately had explored and received training. It was an instant connection! They were both writing about their experiences and finally, older brother (more or less) convinced younger sister that they should join forces and produce a book together.

The book is filled with a lot of personal stories, including from their family upbringing. I’m excerpting here one where Sharon describes one of the childhood incidents that led to some cynicism, which is one of the issues confronting many in our culture when it comes to faith.

Sharon writes

A young girl sat on the porch rubbing the ears of a beautiful gray tabby cat. This particular tabby was the girl’s best friend. Saved from starvation with some of the girl’s own dinners, gray cat showed gratefulness by rubbing his cheek against her shoulder. His fat, sleek, grown-up belly was satisfied with bits of cat food bought secretly though hoarded babysitting money. Each afternoon contained a happy reunion as the girl leaped off the school bus and greeted this purring, leg-rubbing gray cat.

Weekends were bliss. Every spare moment between seemingly endless chores, girl and cat sat together in the sunshine of the porch, or out in the grass, or on a tree limb. The girl told the cat everything in her heart and in return the cat brought the best of his kills to share with her: a rabbit outside the door, a half-chewed rat by the porch rug. They took care of each other, and the girl understood this cat’s language of love even when saddened by the dead animal offerings.

One beautiful sunny Saturday morning, the girl happily got out of bed early. She dressed quickly, hoping to savor extra time with Gray before breakfast and chores. She opened the porch door and saw no sign of her hungry cat. She looked everywhere. Soon visions of Gray run over by a car or other dreadful worries filled her mind. Ah, I’m early, she thought and comforted herself, Gray is still out hunting. She ate breakfast. She read a book and then as her siblings got up and the day’s activities began, the girl filled the cat dish, shook it, making the kibble rattle and called, “Here kitty, kitty, kitty.” Gray never missed breakfast. The girl’s calls filled the porch, then the yard, then slowly and agonizingly, they repeated down the roads near her house.

Hours later she entered the kitchen, heart in eyes, and asked Mom if she saw Gray this morning. Mom hesitated, turning her back, then swiftly, as if to negate the rawness of everything, she explained.

“Dad took him to the auction. Wake up, girl! You had to know what happened to all your cats, all these years, when they reached a certain weight! You couldn’t be that naive.”

But, the girl was naive. A complete idealist, this child’s heart was as open and wide as the sky above. In her 11 years she had tried to harden, wise up, become cynical and tough. This particular morning, as realization dawned and grief leaned toward rage, her heart succeeded in wrapping itself in an extra hard layer of distrust and stoic resolve.

She remembered other Saturday mornings and missing cats. Saturday was “small animal market” day at the local auction, how could she have not put two and two together? Her mind closed down right after her heart walled itself up….

Many of our childhood experiences are wounding. Though the young girl in this story is me, the child is symbolic of every child. This is a universal story: the struggle to understand our culture, and the struggle to grow up…. Life eventually hurts us and we wrap ourselves in layers of armor. If we get hurt or our dreams are dashed often enough we can become jaded, skeptical, and cynical. The transformation of cynicism into joy becomes part of our healing, part of our faith journey. (excerpted with permission from The Spacious Heart, pp. 21–23)

I won’t divulge how this painful story led, many years later, to new understanding of patterns with Sharon’s father and mother. In the book, both Sharon and Don talk about many experiences—theirs and those of others—on the journey of life and faith, and how, over time, they came to work at developing a spacious heart rife with spiritual awakening.

For a free copy of a booklet Forgiving Your Parents for Not Being Perfect, send you request to me at Another Way, 1251 Virginia Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22802 or. I will also send along more information on the Clymer/Landis book, The Spacious Heart.

Posted 9/18/2014 7:00:00 AM

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