One of the pandemic's worst effects took me too long to notice: my healthy skepticism turned into toxic cynicism. I realized this, of all places, at a BJ's Wholesale store.

Before COVID, the store randomly announced it cared about its shoppers along with any new sales. My reaction was to smirk and wonder what evidence they had to prove they really cared. Did they have data on food quality and price comparisons to show they weren't scamming people? Did their membership contracts have unfair fees or expensive loopholes? I'd only believe the company cared about the customers after these questions get answered.

During COVID, their "we care" announcement has reminders about masks and social distancing. My reaction to that has been to scowl and mentally give them the finger. I thought that as an American business, I figured if they could make a little more money by infecting or killing everyone who shopped there, they'd do it in a heartbeat. They were only good enough to hide all the other horrible things they did. I assumed this was it and would never change.

That's the big shift from cynicism to skepticism. I started with "I doubt your statement until we look into the relevant evidence so we can decide from there." But I wound up on "you're a lying, malicious company and that's it." From being open-minded and curious to pessimistic and hostile.

I can understand why I got cynical. It's been months of a terrible response, social isolation, and preventable deaths. I may have even noticed as it happened and accepted it, thinking it couldn't do any real harm.

I can now report, live and on this blog, it can do real harm.

The Harm of Cynicism #

Unsurprisingly, there are serious mental and psychological downsides of not trusting anyone or anything. The tension of always having my guard up was a constant mental strain. It didn't pair well with an unwillingness to open up about it to anyone - I couldn't trust anyone as a general rule, right? So the self-imposed anxiety ate away at my sense of well-being.

Not only did this make me unhappy, but cynicism has damaging physical effects. I cared less about eating healthy and had less energy. My sleep became fractured and restless, so I had a harder time focusing. I felt physical shakes during the day and came close to a panic attack once or twice.

Higher stress levels can also weaken the immune system (thanks a lot, cortisol). So in the ultimate irony, it could have left me more vulnerable to COVID. This can increase the risk of chronic conditions like ulcers or heart disease. So I also have a physical and financial interest in controlling the cynicism.

So I'm glad I caught this cynical slide when I did at a BJ's that Saturday before it got much worse. All while I was shopping with two masks that hid my scowl aimed at everyone around me.

Heal Cynicism with Healthy Skepticism #

I'm thankful that, once I caught this slide, I could nudge myself to a healthier mindset. It's all about remembering a few rules of thumb:

  1. Trust is not a binary. A person or organization can be partly trusted in some or all areas, and sometimes that's enough. I can't trust most stores to 100% care about their customers. But I can trust some enough to shop with minimal risk. At least once I check their social distancing rules and how they're enforced.
  2. Some people will be right for the "wrong" reasons. A store like BJ's may care enough to enforce masks and distancing. But it will be to avoid scaring paying customers away and getting bad press. It's not as good a reason as "we want fewer people to get sick and die." But the result is still a net positive, so I need to accept that.
  3. Remember I'm selfish too. I'm a firm believer in being healthy selfishness, so I should be willing to hold others to a similar standard. So instead of scowling and dismissing the slightest selfish act, I should leave space leeway for empathy and understanding. Within good reason, of course.
  4. There are good people out there. Bad people often get the most attention. That's why reminding myself of the good ones is important. I remember the many people I know and the good things I've seen them do. That's enough to remind me "all people are assholes" is false.

We're approaching the one year mark of the pandemic shattering livelihoods, safety nets, and our sense of "normal." Even with herd immunity on the horizon, it's been an exhausting ride that still has many months left. So avoiding this cynical slide is only going to get tougher.

I wish avoiding toxic cynicism was easy, but it is not. All we can do is keep pushing forward and keep the cynicism from winning out. For our sakes.