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Posted January 18, 2012

Maintaining Balance Amidst Disillusionment

Eugene Hemrick

“If this had been done by an enemy I could bear his taunts. If a rival had risen against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, my own companion, my intimate friend! How close was the friendship between us. We walked in harmony in the house of God.”

The disillusionment of betrayal by a friend conveyed in Psalm 55 is one of countless ways disillusionment can strike us.

British poet John Keats once stated, “There is nothing stable in the world, uproar is your only music.” One glance at the violence happening around the world confirms how true and disillusioning this is.

French novelist Gustave Flaubert counsels us, “We shouldn’t touch our idols: the gilt comes off on our hands.” Written in the 1800s, this sage advice is as pertinent now as it was then. When we reflect on prominent public figures that were heroes one day and the next day were a disgrace, we realize how fleeting our awe for another can be.

The French writer Simone de Beauvoir observes, “If you live long enough, you’ll see that every victory turns into a defeat.” Perhaps not every victory ends in defeat. It is true, however, that much of what we have achieved is often replaced or dismantled by those coming after us, leaving us to wonder what we really accomplish with our lives.

The word disillusion means to “take away the ideals or idealism of,” “to be disappointed, to be bitter.” It strikes all walks of life: husbands and wives becoming disillusioned with each other or disappointed in their children; disenchantment with the government or our church; dissatisfaction with our work. The list of woes is endless. The greatest tragedy of disillusionment is the subversion of two of our most precious gifts: kindness and joy.

Simply defined, kindness is being well disposed toward life, our friends, our selves and especially God. A zest for life is generated when we are well disposed. We arise in the morning looking forward to the day, our work and new challenges, and making progress.

Closely akin to kindness is faith in life, our friends and our world. Embracing them takes precedence over distrust and skepticism.

The renowned theologian Fr. Romano Guardini tells us a strong faith and zest for life is two of the most essential qualities for making true progress. When we combine them with the qualities he sees existing in courage, we have what young people would call “the makings of a beautiful person.”

“Courage,” Guardini states, “is the confidence requisite for living with a view to the future, for acting, building, assuming responsibilities and forming ties. For, in spite of our precautions, the future is in each case the unknown. But living means advancing into this unknown region, which may lie before us like a chaos into which we must venture.”

Note the qualities of optimism, hopefulness, confidence and the adventuresome spirit ringing through this definition! We live for the future, want to bond with others to insure it progress, and we are willing to take responsibility for making this happen. Much may be unknown, yet we aspire to venture out into undefined.

When disillusionment grips us, it stifles the above and is anything but music to our ears. It reminds us of the lyrics sung by Peggy Lee in which she pictures the stages of life as humdrum and weary. After each stage, she sings the refrain, “Is that all there is to life? Is that all there is?” The pessimism and depression that ring through this song are the direct antithesis to one of Frank Sinatra’s best songs in which he sings, “It was a very good year, it was a very good year.”

The side effects of disillusionment are many: disbelief, a shattered world-view, depression, despair, gloom, melancholy, despondency, dissatisfaction, discontent, unrest, discord, and indifference.

French philosopher Voltaire points us to another negative result of disillusionment in stating, “Having never succeeded in the world, he took his revenge by speaking ill of it.” We have to wonder how many persons turned to acts of violence because of disillusionment? What might be our best means for countering this malady?

One place to start is to know history. Why do we point to it? The great historian Charles Oman gives us one good reason.

“The human record is illogical . . . And history is a series of happenings with no inevitability about it.”

The root of disillusionment is often the illogic and uncertainties in life: things just don’t add up, they shouldn’t be happening! This can lead to thoughts like “Why try to ‘fix’ society, get involved with it or believe in anything?” “Why attempt to make sense out of a senseless world?” We go sour and are anything but well disposed.

As we can see, disillusionment dampens our sense of kindness, while at the same time deflating our faith and zest for life. History, on the other hand, teaches us uncertainty and the illogic has been and always will be part of life’s realities. She challenges us, “How well do you understand this?”

A beautiful lunette in the Library of Congress pictures wisdom sitting atop the biblical proverb, “Wisdom is the principal thing, by all means get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding.” In demonstrating life is often illogical and uncertain, history encourages us to learn how those in the past coped with them.

History has a calming side to it. When Israel and the whole Middle Eastern war turned to chaos, I remember feeling extremely depressed about the thought of never seeing peace in our lifetime. At that time I happened to receive a copy of the book, The Ten Books on the Way of Life and Great Deeds of Carmelites. A paragraph in it caught my attention and was just what I needed to dispel my gloom. “When the crusader forces conquered Jerusalem in 1099, to great acclaim throughout Christendom, it was thought that the Latin kingdom then established would endure for centuries, thus preserving the Holy Land in Christian hands. However, this was not to be the case, and it was not long before the Moslem forces, regrouping under their new leader Saladin, inflicted defeat on the Christian army at the Battle of Hattim in 1187.”

I laughed as I read this and thought to myself, “As it was then so it is now, here we go again.” History helps us to see reality as it is, not the way we would like it to be and that the disasters we experience are not a first in time. It helps us calm down and survey the entire picture of humankind; to see we aren’t alone when it comes to disillusioning events. It also teaches us that just as others had to endure, so too, do we have to endure; even more so, just as they didn’t stop but kept going, so too are we expected to keep going. The spirit of understanding that history generates is the direct antithesis to the dark spirit of disillusionment and thoughts of gloom and dooms day. It teaches us that Haiti will rebuild and be a better country despite the earthquake; that the Gulf Coast will recover and we will be better for the lessons it has taught.

Let’s now turn to Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Exhortation on Christian Joy, which is akin to kindness and needed to fend off disillusionment, depression and gloom.

The first quality of joy Pope Paul VI identifies is the joy of elation. Simply put, it means drinking in the beauty of Mother Nature and allowing her elation to life our spirit. The Canticle of Daniel 3:57-88, 56 captures this spirit par excellence in praying:

“Bless the Lord and the works of the Lord.
You heavens bless the Lord.
All you waters above the heavens, bless the Lord.
Sun and moon, bless the Lord.
Stars of heaven, bless the Lord.
All you winds, bless the Lord.”

One by one the Canticle ticks off God’s gifts of Mother Nature, reminding us to stop, to gaze at her beauty and to be grateful for her abundance. It is a canticle of celebration filled with the joy of God’s nature. In all humility I have not only prayed this canticle, but lived it.

I live close to the botanical gardens in Washington, D.C. This year’s flower arrangements was spellbinding! I often went down to drink them in, and each time I did, I told myself, “Only God could create the awesome mixture of dazzling colors contained in these flowers!”

The exaltation that comes from stopping to smell the roses is one of our best means for remaining joyful and resistant to disillusionment.

Joy of austerity is another of joy’s qualities. It means to take joy over work well done. Here we have the picture of stepping back, admiring the fruits of our labor and letting the moment fill us with happiness. Creating moments of blessed pride is its mission.

In my youth I worked as a gardener. It was one of the happiest periods in my life. Why was this so? Because I used to step back after a day’s work and imbibe in the joy of work well done. I remember planting flowerbeds and at the end of the day standing there in admiration of the way they enhanced the surroundings of the mansion where I worked. There were also times in which I cut the lawn in unique patterns and relish their novel geometric designs. What made this so wonderful was coming home at night and falling asleep thinking about the beauty I had seen and created. It taught me that if we take pride in our work, it can produce the heavenly sleep and rest needed to combat any disillusionment that comes our way.

Years later I came across the spiritual practice of theological reflection that deepened this practice. Theological reflection encourages us to review our day each night, to reflect on the people with whom we have had a significant encounter, and to recall how God-graced the day was. This practice taught me that we have a good number of significant encounters with people, many of which are very supportive and nourishing. We may have received a compliment here, an encouraging word there, or had a friend truly listen to us in a moment of stress. They are moments that should be reflected on repeatedly because they contain joys that should be preserved. Theological reflection reminds us to rejoice in these moments and to thank God for their grace and strengthening of our spirit.

Closely connected with disillusionment is depression --- a darkness of the mind that almost got hold of me during a difficult period in my life. Thanks to my gardening experience and a wise old Benedictine monk I was able to subdue it before it took hold of me.

I had changed jobs after working twenty years at the Bishops’ Conference in Washington, D.C. In hindsight, the move proved to be a blessing. However, at the time I changed jobs I was twenty years older than when I came to the Conference. In trying to make new adjustments, I quickly learned I wasn’t as flexible and free spirited as I was then.

My new job was in the President’s Office of The Catholic University of America. It was nothing like my past position as director of research for the bishops. There was new routines, extensive travel, many more meetings, and I didn’t have the community life of priests I had enjoyed while living at the staff house of the Bishops’ Conference. I found myself alone and in a completely new and unfamiliar world. One day I arrived at work not knowing how I got there. There was also the fear that I didn’t have the strength needed for my new job, nor the breathing space I once enjoyed.

During a severe panic attack, I happened to remember the words of an old Benedictine monk who taught at St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Illinois. Periodically he would tell his class, “You have enough under your scull cap, now it is time to get dirt under your finger nails,” and off the class would go to work on the adjoining farm.

Remembering this, I dropped everything I was doing, put on coveralls and returned to my days of gardening, pruning trees, cutting lawns, planting and weeding. Each evening I came home filthy and exhausted, but to my delight, I was back to normal within a week.

That experience taught me a very valuable lesson: when we use our hands, work with soil and imbibe in the outdoors, it is therapy par excellence. Why is this so?

One reason is that our hands contain touch and are one of our best means for keeping us in touch. When anxieties attack us, it is common to become paralyzed and to go into a protective shell and avoid all forms of contact. Manual labor forces us to break out of our shell and move into action. It puts back into contact.

When we work with soil, we are in direct touch with life itself because from it grows all that sustains our life. When pressures grip us, it is common to become divorced from all forms of life because we blame life for our pressures. To reunite with it through its soil is an excellent way of reminding us earth’s life is our friend and is there to help us. Watching seeds produce new life is life giving.

When I was cycling through Germany, I learned yet another lesson for combating depression. It was common to see elderly couples hiking up mountain passes. For many Germans, the outdoors is considered therapy and a way of staying fit. In conversations with them, I learned that they see the outdoors containing the healing powers that keep our spirits, as well as our physical well being, uplifted. Getting outdoors is a way of escaping from pressures. The clear, fresh air it provides is an excellent means for clearing our head where tensions and pressures tend to lodge.

The joy of sharing and serving is yet another quality of joy to which Pope Paul points us.

In an interview with Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, he was asked why he was so generous in funding projects that fight malaria.

He replied, “God has been very good to us. Now it is time to pay back that goodness by sharing it with others.”

When he said this, you could see him light up.

No doubt all of us have felt the same uplifting spirit Gates reflected. When we give of ourselves, the inner harmony of which Pope Paul speaks surfaces, causing true heartfelt joy.

A chaste and sanctified love is yet another quality of joy.

In his Exhortation, Pope Paul observes we have lost the meaning of sanctified love and hence the meaning of true happiness. He writes, “Technological society has succeeded in multiplying the opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy. For joy comes from another source. It is spiritual. Money, comfort, hygiene and material security are often not lacking; and yet boredom, depression and sadness unhappily remain the lot of many. These feelings sometimes go as far as anguish and despair, which apparent carefreeness, the frenzies of present good fortune and artificial paradises cannot assuage.”

It is no exaggeration to say that our culture has lost much of its sense of true joy and that behind this is the missing sense of a sanctified life. One look at the way marriage, home life, the business world and government are portrayed in the media immediately tells us that something critical is missing. More often than not, we are seeing marriage portrayed as a convenient agreement rather than a sacred bond, home life as hectic and dysfunctional rather than as a sacred community, the business world and governments as dog eat dog jobs rather than sacred duties and a calling. Asking what really counts in life for our salvation is politically incorrect. Questioning what is and is not authentic isn’t relevant. Speaking of God in public is less and less acceptable.

Throughout the bible, God is portrayed as a God of joy who has provided joy throughout his creation. In doing this, God has deemed his creation and us sacred. When sacredness is no longer respected, so too, is joy diminished.

What might be one last thought on all we have said? May I suggest that when we hear the words “Lift up your hearts,” at Mass, we remind ourselves that the most effective way to keep our hearts uplifted and joyful is to be forever re-enkindling the underlying principles of true joy and kindness. They are within us waiting to generate the peace of mind and happiness we desire.