The Struggle Against Cynicism

It’s when you’re walking down a crowded avenue already late for a meeting or an interview and a pack of 50 tourists stops in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking your way, forcing you to miss the light. It’s when your heart aches for the elderly woman with a low and wide lumbering gait, walking with a kerchief, a cain and a tin can of donations, tears streaming down her face, and then you see her the next day in a different part of town, upright and happy, her deformity gone. It’s the time you’re trying to get home from a friend’s birthday and it’s late, and you’re alone, and the subway you have to take is closed for repair work and every cab is full. It’s when you finally get on to the train after a long day, open your book or magazine, and then a man gets on, unzips his pants and starts peeing in the space between the subway car and the platform before the doors have had a chance to close.

It’s easy to become cynical here. It’s easy to think that every so-called-veteran asking for money is a junkie, that every group of streets performers is hustling, that the person crowding you on the subway is doing so willfully, determined to be an asshole, to screw you somehow. That the man smiling at you is a perverted creep.

It’s harder to reject the cynicism. Not outright; that would be naive. The city is a compilation of people from various walks of life, from every part of the country and around the world. This includes good people and bad people, those who wish to help and those who want to do harm. You have to be smart and vigilant, but also open to the possibility of something unexpected.

A few months ago, I was traveling on an annoyingly slow Q train. I was tired. I desperately wanted to read my magazine. A woman gets on and immediately starts proselytizing. For a good few minutes, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. All I could hear was the booming bass of her voice. I was growing more livid by the second. But then, she came closer, and I started to hear snippets of her message. I’m not sure if it’s because I was already in a vulnerable state, but her words seemed especially touching. She told the train car that god loves them, that many of us are afraid to be loved because we think we’re broken and wicked and deserving of our misfortune. She said that was not the case. That no matter our sexual orientation, our religion, where we’ve come from, that we deserve love and should open ourselves up to it.

Now, I’m not particularly religious, or even a Christian, but that day, when I was so sure I was about to hear a lecture about hell and damnation, her words were moving and refreshing.

I know many people would have still found her disruption annoying, but to me, it was a reminder that not every person fulfills your worst expectations. That this city is still full of surprises.


(Image via drivebysh00ter,; made available under under Creative Commons license)


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