Friday, September 2, 2011

On Disappointment

Personal Reflections

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Robert Burns, To a Mouse (1785), stanza 7.

There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.
Jane Austen

There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

There are times when we become disappointed. I have had my share of disappointments, including a costly business failure last year, as well as with family, friends, children, co-workers and others. I have yet to meet someone who has never suffered disappointment of some kind. It's a human emotion, and it's an emotion that often comes out of an unmet expectation. Does that not show that we have good and positive expectations of others? Or that we normally expect good from others? If we didn't, then we would not be disappointed. Disappointments reveal a truth that is needed, namely, that we are functioning well as healthy humans.

The self-reported cynical and realistic types are rarely disappointed, or rarely if ever reveal their disappointments, considering it a sign of weakness. But that might not be so such a good thing for their humanity, since such persons are unlikely to display care or concern for others. It might well be that cynicism results in an unhealthy view of the world, full of suspicions and intrigues, and the so-called realistic view is nothing more than a shield against, what else? Disappointment. Against human emotions that make all of us more feeling.

But such persons are in the minority. ( I am not talking here about discussions among world leaders and world politics, which is another matter.) I like what George Eliot wrote in Daniel Deronda, a book I would highly recommend. Although the passage describes the need for Hope, there is a link between disappointment and hope, the former leading to the latter:
You know nothing about Hope, that immortal, delicious maiden forever courted forever propitious, whom fools have called deceitful, as if it were Hope that carried the cup of disappointment, whereas it is her deadly enemy, Certainty, whom she only escapes by transformation.
Yes, some deride the finer feelings of Hope and Love. But what are they left with in their place?  Disappointment comes in many forms and guises, surely, but through its often bitter pill we find out not only about others and ourselves but the finer qualities of hope and love. Deep disappointments can be discouraging, even debilitating to our sense of self-worth, yet we eventually come out of it through kind and warm human relationships.

To be spared disappointment is to close ourselves off from human contact. That is not an ideal state in which to live. Disappointment can, and often does, compel us to move out of the state of self-sufficiency and reach out and connect with others. Much of current scientific research is now focusing in such areas as happiness and human development. Much of it rests on our unconscious world of thought, the deep urgings of the brain. Brain science is showing that human unconscious desires are highly influential in how we see the world and make decisions, a point David Brooks fleshed out in an insightful article in The New Yorker, Social Animal
Over the past few decades, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and others have made great strides in understanding the inner working of the human mind. Far from being dryly materialistic, their work illuminates the rich underwater world where character is formed and wisdom grows. They are giving us a better grasp of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, predispositions, character traits, and social bonding, precisely those things about which our culture has least to say. Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.
The last point on the health of theology and philosophy is arguable, and unnecessary. Brain science doesn't so much fill a void, as explain things in a different language. Even so, science is determining, in agreement with the long history of the arts and humanities, that what matters most are human relationships. That's the most human of needs. After all, both Aristotle and Spinoza, high rationalists, concluded that we are social animals. Our personal stories confirm this as true.