On cynicism and magic

There is such a thing as magic.

It has other names: joy, wonder, meaning, love. It’s what you feel when, on the last day of your Interim trip to Walt Disney World (WDW), you’re singing along with the fireworks music at the Magic Kingdom, smiling uncontrollably with people you hadn’t met a week ago but now cannot imagine not knowing. Or when a dozen Disney characters and thousands of your closest and most enthusiastic friends are counting down to the park’s opening.

Or when, just for a moment, while a single firework is burning above Cinderella Castle, you actually believe that wishing upon a star will make your dreams come true.

All it takes is the first glance of the backed-up security checkpoint at Orlando International Airport to bring you crashing back into the real world, into the cynical mental space we’ve all been trained to inhabit our whole lives. In contemporary American culture, cynicism is expected, praised and acted upon. We’re taught to question everything, to think for ourselves, to assume that anything that seems too good to be true must be.

But I was reminded this January that it’s healthy to occasionally step out of our critical mindsets and celebrate happy endings without searching for the dark sequel or “untold story.” I don’t actually believe that anything my heart desires will come to me if I make a wish on the first star I see tonight, but maybe it’s not a terrible idea to pretend to believe it once in awhile. I’ve found it to be refreshing and rewarding.

Of course, there are some areas in which cynicism is almost always helpful: politics, for example, or advertising. It’s in your best interest to question everything that comes out of the mouths of politicians and Home Shopping Network salespeople. It saves time, money and sanity.

There are other situations, though, where I think we can be much healthier, happier and more compassionate if we can turn off our cynicism and replace it with a little imagination and belief. Maybe Calvin’s administrators aren’t on a warpath against the liberal arts. Maybe certain religious groups, political factions and nonprofit organizations aren’t out to ruin America’s values or reject science in favor of ignorance. And maybe other people really are hurting when they say they are.

And it’s not only in weighty, painful discussions that we need to exchange cynicism for faith, trust and pixie dust. This mental exercise also allows us to find joy in what is otherwise merely happy. As anyone who’s ever seen “As You Like It” or had a Biggby mocha knows, many of us try to avoid things that are “too sweet.” But what if that’s a problem with us rather than the object we’re dismissing?

This is where Disney World is helpful. Professor Becca McBride told us on the first day of class that in order to enjoy WDW you need to believe in your heart that Mickey Mouse is actually standing in front of you while knowing in your head that it’s really an underpaid college student in a fancy costume. You need to buy in to the idea that you’re visiting an African village in the Animal Kingdom, that you can travel the world in a day at Epcot and that there really are 999 happy haunts in the Haunted Mansion. You need to change and become like little children. At least, it’s a lot more fun if you do.

Disney makes it easy to do this because they put so much effort into detail and production; they draw you into their imaginary world and leave your belief half-suspended already. Since Interim, though, I’ve begun to suspect that this same kind of magic hides all throughout our everyday lives and that we are simply too cynical to see it. It lies in fairy tales and budget decisions, friendships and fights.

The world is already too dark, scary and disheartening. Let’s accept the starlight when we find it. “Don’t let your heart be filled with sorrow. For all you know, tomorrow the dream that you wish will come true.”