By Dr Scilla Elworthy
Anyone who is an idealist or visionary—as well as being a realist—will probably be trying to bridge the gulf in understanding between the hard realities of politics, and what might erroneously be called the ‘soft’ disciplines that foster inner peace, such as psychology, meditation and self-awareness. Anyone who is a pioneer of new ideas will encounter cynicism—that’s part of the job description. But the question is: how best to deal with it?
Some giants like South Africa’s Archbishop Tutu will simply laugh, while throwing the cynic a glance of such piercing twinkling intelligence that the bubble of aggressiveness bursts.
Others will have developed what is now recognised as ‘presence.’ Presence is a solidity of being that results from having feet firmly planted on the ground, while at the same time the mind is free and fast, while the heart is wide open. A person who has presence is not someone that a cynic will be drawn to attack, because presence is its own subtle protection, an invisible bodyguard. Think of Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition in Burma. Of course this kind of presence is enhanced enormously by having a track record such as theirs, but there are many less well known people who have extraordinary natural presence and influence, based on their authenticity. My experience is that those who have pure presence are automatically perceived as authentic, and the influence (or personal power) that they have is in direct relation to the degree of that authenticity.
Others simply ignore cynicism and get on with the job. But it can get to you, even if you don’t show it at the time. Imagine the scene. You’ve just poured your all into a presentation of the ideas and possibilities that are close to your heart, which is pounding with the excitement of exposing your vision to the world. And someone—a person with extremely raised eyebrows—gets up to say: “You’re not seriously suggesting that…..” (followed by a parody of what you’re trying to say, geared to get a laugh from the audience). What then?
I find that, buried in the lip curl of the cynic’s comments, there is often something valuable hidden. But first I have to get past my own inner saboteur, who may be saying: “SEEEE? I told you it’s a silly idea. I told you it wouldn’t fly…” I have to be quick to catch the saboteur at it, and not dissolve into a puddle of doubt.
Then if I can actually listen to what the cynic is saying, there may be some grain of disappointed hope buried deeply in those words. It’s possible that the cynic lost his or her hope some time ago, and somewhere in the depths, this person longs to feel that hope again. I am unlikely to be able to touch that secret place in public, but in a private conversation it may emerge. In public, it may be best to reply straight, saying something like: “Well, let me re-phrase. What I am suggesting is ….” (and repeat what I actually said or wanted to say).
If all else fails, it cheers me up to remember what Oscar Wilde said: “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” British comedian John Oliver has another take: cynicism gets easier with practice, he says. “You get better at it. You kill the thing inside that’s holding you back….You flick a switch and turn off the human side of you.” He laughs nervously. “And then you just hope you can flick it back on again afterwards.”
In the Oxford Research Group, which I founded in 1982, we dedicated ourselves to finding out how nuclear weapons decisions were made in all the nuclear nations, in order to render those decisions accountable and bring production to a halt. We learned gradually—by making countless mistakes—how to engage in real dialogue with nuclear policy makers, getting to know them well enough to invite them to spend two days in a medieval manor house near Oxford talking confidentially with their opposite numbers from other nuclear nations and with their most knowledgeable critics, and eventually rolling up their sleeves to thrash out possible terms of treaties.
To do this we had to create a very safe environment, what I would call a ‘container’ strong enough to hold the initial suspicions and deep differences of opinion. By this time I had begun to understand the value of meditation, and had become a Quaker. Moreover I had got to know a number of extremely wise people, including my beloved mentor Professor Adam Curle, who really knew how to meditate. So I invited some of them to be 'Standing Stones' for the meetings, meditating all day long in the library underneath the room where the talks were taking place. (See photo by Rosie Houldsworth: "The beamed room built in 1360 where meetings with nuclear policy makers were held.")
One day one of the US State Department negotiators said to me:
"This is a very special room."
"Yes, it was built in 1360."
"No, it's REALLY special."
"I agree. It may be because many good things have happened in this room."
"No, I mean, there's something coming up through the floorboards."
I explained that the meeting was being supported by meditation, taking place in the library below. He looked as if I had slapped him. He said: “You have to be kidding…” He was aghast, and so shocked that I knew our reputation was at stake. So the only thing was to refer him to the source. “You know those older people who serve you your lunch? Ask them. They sit in the library meditating while we are in here.” After a conversation with Adam Curle, whose profoundly grounded good sense would reassure anyone, our sceptical diplomat was smiling.
Compared to the mockery and vilification—and worse—that social activists in conflict zones have to undergo, most of us have an easy time. Many risk their lives, and lose them, for their beliefs and their willingness to stand up for the truth. Knowing this, and realising that in our still relatively ‘safe’ environments we don’t generally risk our lives for what we believe, should make it easier to stand the blast of a little cynicism.
Cynicism can in fact be a pragmatic visionary’s secret ally. It can compel us to hone our arguments, to become crystal clear in our presentation, to invent new strategies to reach people where they are and not where we would like them to be. If we understand cynicism to be deeply rooted in fear, disappointment, exhaustion of the soul, then we can make space for it to heal in ourselves and others.
Scilla Elworthy PhD. Three times Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and author of "Pioneering the Possible: Awakened Leadership for a World That Works" to be published by North Atlantic Books on October 7th.
 Of course, extremely destructive people can also have presence, such as Hitler and Saddam Hussein.