Vermonters are Cynical Idealists

A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. Ralph Waldo Emerson “Self-Reliance,” 1841

I am definitively biased when it comes to this quote, seeing as I am from Vermont myself: that I agree with Emerson’s summation should go without saying. I do think he was on to something, though: while not necessarily geographically linked, there is absolutely a subset of people who have a predisposition to self-reliance. You know the ones: the folks that are always trying their hand at something new, always have pet projects and things they want to learn or do, because they feel it is worthwhile to know how to do something. The people who, even when they’re hit by setbacks and are on the ropes, they’ve got a smile on their face.

I wouldn’t consider them optimists, nor would I consider them pessimists — frankly the folks I’ve met like this run the gamut on whether the glass is half full or half empty. Instead, I prefer to think of this delightful subset of people as Cynical Idealists. Anyone who has spent any serious amount of time in Vermont will know that the official state pastime is complaining. We’ll complain about the weather, we’ll complain about flatlanders, we’ll complain about that pesky varmint that keeps eating the tomatoes. We’ll complain about the snow, and the mud, and the black flies and the mosquitos. We’ll complain about taxes, complain about the cost of gas or the cost of milk, we’ll definitely complain about the cost of heating the house through the winter. If you have an idea or a plan or a project you want to work on, we’ll go to great lengths to pick it apart until you’re wondering why you ever brought it up in the first place. We’ll complain about damn near anything, given the time and opportunity to do so.

And then, after we’re done complaining, we buckle down and deal with it. We complain about the sudden two foot snowstorm, at the same time we’re digging ourselves out. The ideas and plans that we nitpick, once we’re done poking holes in it, we patch it up and do it. You’ll hear a Vermonter complain all year, point out all the things that are wrong, and then if you ask them “Well, why don’t you just move somewhere else?” the answer will be “Now, why on earth would I want to do that?” This is cynical idealism, plain and simple: we’ll point out all the problems and flaws, and then work towards that ideal anyway. It’s a particular attitude that evolves out of pragmatism (in that there is still a sense of “this needed to be done, so I did it”), but is its own thing (“this SHOULD be done, so I did it”).

It’s not just Vermonters and New Hampshirites that are like this, not by any stretch. I’d say perhaps we just seem to have a higher concentration of them. I wish there were more cynical idealists in the world: there’s something very special, and very useful about the productive naysayer.


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