A certain very erudite and always entertaining social critic remarked recently that he always thought the worst of people. He went on to say — perhaps, at most, half jokingly — that he was always right about them, too. He then revealed that he actually had been very trusting as a boy; that he believed everyone and often got taken advantage of. He certainly doesn’t get taken advantage of much now, I’m sure. But what he doesn’t know is that in one significant way he hasn’t changed at all.
The man’s admission of his boyhood as a doormat didn’t surprise me, for gullibility and cynicism are two sides of the same coin. They are both a function of naiveté, which can be defined as ignorance about reality. The gullible person proceeds as if everyone is good and trustworthy, whereas the cynic proceeds as if everyone is essentially bad and untrustworthy. But reality is quite different: There are, practically speaking, “good” people and “bad” people, the well-meaning and the self-serving. And possessing discernment enables one to distinguish between the two groups. Yet the gullible person trusts people even when he shouldn’t and the cynic fails to trust them even when he should.
The transition from gullible babe in the woods to steadfast cynic is easy to understand. The budding cynic, lacking in what some today called “emotional I.Q.,” is unable to draw the aforementioned distinctions among people; they all look the same to him. But being essentially good — and, as people will do, supposing that others operate as he does — he assumes that virtually everyone can be trusted. Then, of course, it isn’t long before the wrong person betrays his trust — and it happens again and again and again (this is especially problematic since con artists, generally possessed of great feel for man’s nature, will sense his gullibility and target him specifically). Not wanting to be burned again, the babe then switches modes and ceases to trust, but not just those unworthy of it. For he still can’t distinguish between the good and bad; people still all look the same to him, so the untrustworthy who scarred him now just seem like a representative sample of man. Thus does he assume that all people are basically self-serving and often mercenary.
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