Soaring Above Cynicism

Creeping cynicism may be a greater threat than creeping communism ever was.

The tendency to view mankind as headed inexorably downhill feeds on appalling events in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Haiti. It clings to reports of mushrooming crime, no matter how partial or distorted those reports may be. And it oozes from screens, big and small, whether in the latest violence-obsessed movie or the ``true-to-life'' TV fare that serves up personal tragedy as family entertainment.

All these things tend to foster a disbelief in the goodness of our fellow men and women - an inclination to expect the worst and usually find it.

But I've found there is an antidote for cynicism. It is simply to open the eyes a little wider and take in a larger view than that supplied by the tube or our own particular troubles.

What then comes into view are people doing remarkable things, often for the least cynical reasons. My line of work, general assignment feature writing for this newspaper, has erased any doubt I might have had that such people are plentiful.

My first extensive trip as a reporter, almost nine years ago, was to New Orleans. The city's heady mix of Southern charm and Creole culture took me by storm.

Stories were draped around that town like Spanish moss on a live oak. But one stands out to me: McDonough 15, an old, somewhat tattered elementary school in the French Quarter.

Inside, the halls and classrooms hummed to the vision of Principal Lucianne Carmichael. She believed that all the children in that racially diverse student body could learn to tell their own stories in well-chosen words and even write their own books.

And every child did, as the rows of neatly bound and vividly illustrated ``books'' in the school's library attested. Self-worth and a respect for the work of others were never lacking in that urban school.

In another part of the South - Orlando, Fla. - I happened on Henry Swanson, a retired agriculturist who had started a one-man campaign to protect Florida's ground water. His passion was the preservation of ``high-recharge'' lands, areas that allowed water to seep into aquifers but were rapidly being covered with asphalt and concrete.

He never missed an opportunity to talk to civic groups and anyone else who would listen, and he couldn't have cared less that some people dismissed him as a nut.

Mr. Swanson, a tall kindly gentleman, had another passion, too. For years, he had tended a feeding station for migrating monarch butterflies. The graceful orange and black insects would land on the ``honey chair,'' an old tubular lawn chair dabbed with honeyed water, and then pirouette into the sky above his yard. A couple alighted on his hand when he held it out. Here was a man attuned to nature as well as to a pressing environmental and human need.

Some people defy cynicism with the inspiring virtuosity of their talent. When in Seattle, I happened on a brochure describing the work of a local craftsman, Emmett Day, and decided to visit him.

His modest home was filled with things that sprang from his hands - in one corner, a small black steel safe that looked uncrackable; in another, an ornate desk that could have come from the halls of Versailles.

Since he was a boy, he'd had an uncanny ability to grasp the workings of virtually anything he'd see and recreate it. Metals, exotic woods such as ebony and rose wood, and inlaid pearl - all bowed to his genius.

A different kind of genius was needed by a community organizer determined to bring better housing to a neighborhood. Sandy Phillips, who ran a community development corporation in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, had that genius. She helped bring together people from the nearby University of Pittsburgh, from city hall, and from the neighborhood itself to pull off complex projects such as revamping a block of apartments.

Sometimes the commitment to community grows from deep personal loss, as with Clementine Barfield in Detroit. Her organization, Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD), took shape after one of her children was killed by gunfire.

She'd smile, laugh, and say, ``Just call us Sooo Sad.'' But there was more than a little real sadness behind the smile. Yet a loss that might have turned a lot of people toward self-pity or cynicism had propelled her toward profound involvement with her community and a zeal for saving other children from violence.

The job of extracting young lives from Detroit's web of crime and decay was also being tackled by Ray Johnson, principal of the Paul Robeson Academy. The academy is a public ``school of choice.'' Students and parents choose Mr. Johnson's school because they know it's a place where discipline, order, and excellence are expected and achieved.

The academy's theme is African-American culture, but the atmosphere engendered by Johnson is anything but exclusivist or angry. The youngsters there, in their white shirts and dark trousers or skirts, are learning about taking responsibility for themselves and others, and all of us will benefit.

I could cite others I've met, such as Karen Daden in Bridgeport, Conn., who helped her East Side neighborhood rally against the local drug traffic and regain a sense of pride.

Or Rae Edelson, who runs an arts workshop for the disabled in Brookline, Mass., where people who might once have been stashed away in an institution display some wonderfully visible talents.

Few of these people work alone. They're aided and encouraged by like-motivated colleagues or perhaps by total strangers who appreciate their efforts. And how many other examples of people doing unselfish or impressive work could be added to the few I've come across? Look around your own town. Or look around the world - there are people actively trying to make things better from the forests of Brazil to the slums of Bangkok.

The problem with cynicism is that it blocks such positive efforts from view or writes them off as insignificant. The achievements of individuals most of us may never hear about are highly significant. They hint at a brighter future than cynicism's gloom can ever perceive.

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