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Posted October 15, 2010

Countering 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 being betrayed by a friend that is conveyed in Psalm 55 is just one of countless disillusionments that 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 in this country and 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 who were heros 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.

These quotes are just the tip of the iceberg of the impact disillusionment can have on us. The word disillusion means to “take away the ideals or idealism of,” “to be disappointed, 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 disillusionments is endless. Its common denominator is the subversion of our spirit.

What is the spirit of which we speak, and in what ways does it undermine our spirit?

Living the virtue of kindness best describes a healthy, wholesome spirit. It is being well-disposed toward life, our friends, our selves and especially God. In being well-disposed, we generate zest for life. We arise in the morning looking forward to the day. It also generates a confident faith in life and in around us.

The renowned theologian Fr. Romano Guardini tells us a sure faith and zest for life are two essential qualities of progress. When we combine them with the qualities he defines that exist in courage, a magnificent portrait of our spirit emerges.

“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 adventuresomeness ringing through this definition! We live for the future, want to bond with others to insure its well-being, and we are desirous of shouldering our duties to make this happen. Much may be unknown, yet we aspire to venture out into undefined.

When disillusionment grips us, it stifles the qualities of which Guardini speaks and is anything but music to our ears. It reminds us of a song sung by Peggy Lee which sees the sages of life being weary. After each stage, she sings the refrain, “Is that all there is to life? Is that all there is?” The hopelessness, pessimism, apathy and depression that ring through this song are the direct antithesis to one of Frank Sinatra best known songs in which a person reflects on the stages in his or her life and ends with the refrain, “It was a very good year, it was a very good year.”

One of disillusionment’s side effects is that it permutates and takes many different forms: shock, disbelief, a shattered world-view, depression, despair, gloom, melancholy, despondency, dissatisfaction, discontent, unrest, discord, indifference, and a host of other negative results.

Another very worrisome side effect of disillusionment is found in a quote by the French philosopher Voltaire, “Having never succeeded in the world, he took his revenge by speaking ill of it.” We have to wonder how many persons came to see everything in life as counter-intuitive and shattering of their world-view, saw no other way of righting things and turned to terrorism?

What might be our best means for countering disillusionment? One place to start is history — the of civilization and salvation history found in the scriptures. Why do we point to history? 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 illogic and uncertainty in life: things just don’t make add up, they shouldn’t be happening, they are incomprehensible! 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 an uncertain, senseless world?” “If this is all there is to life, why not live it to the hilt and forget all this bunk about loyalty and devotedness?”

As we can see, disillusionment turns the spirit sour, destroying goodness, faith and a zest for life needed for a kind disposition and spreading the uplifting, life-giving affects of kindness.

History teaches us how to live with uncertainty and illogic in life by broadening our understanding of life’s realities. A beautiful lunette in the Library of Congress pictures wisdom sitting atop the 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 teaches us understanding. Above all, it instructs us that contradictions life is and always has been an integral part of it.

In an interview with a priest who was considered very effective in his diocese, we asked him how he copes with disappointments. “You have to live with the gaps. There are always going to be gap, so you have to live with the gaps”, was his reply. Put another way, we have to broaden our understanding by realizing we can’t understand everything. To accept this is wisdom, an excellent antidote for curing disillusionment.

History also has an ironic calming side to it. Some back when Israel and the whole Middle Eastern war turned to chaos, I remember feeling extremely down about the thought of never seeing peace in our lifetime. At that same 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 at the thought, “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 often would like reality to be, or fantasize about it. Facing reality has a calming affect by countering the feeling that something disastrous is happening for the first time in our history, and the disturbing thought, “This is a horrendous disaster that has never happened before!” It teaches us to calm down and look at the whole 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, and more so, just as 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 it thoughts of gloom, doom and thoughts of never recovering. It teaches us that Haiti will rebuild and be better a better country despite the earthquake; that the Gulf Coast will recover and be better for the lessons it has learned for keeping it clean and healthy; that disasters, as horrific as they are, are often not the end but the beginning of new life.

When we turn to salvation history, we learn that God also draws crooked lines. Take the life of King David, for example. He is God’s chosen one who writes sacred psalms, builds the city of Jerusalem and unites Israel as best as possible. So far, all is to our liking, it is logical and the way it should be according to God’s plan. But then we have Bethesda and the murder of her husband by David so that he can cover up an affair he had with her: a total disconnect! This is an integral part of salvation history. But why is this so? My wise old grandfather, a shepherd who immigrated to America from Italy gives us one good answer.

When I would get uptight about something that seemed immoral or illogical, he would say to me, “Gini, it is all in the bible. Read the bible and you will learn nothing in this world is new.” His insight was straight forward: God allows seemingly contradictory events throughout the bible. The bible teaches us to study its realities and to realize that as much as we would like to more logic and less contradictory behavior in it, there is a reality beyond our comprehension, God’s mysterious plan. We often picture God controlling everything to God’s liking, but a closer look at the bible demonstrates God often allows events to happen that aren’t to God’s liking. Pondering the way God sometimes acts contradictory, we are invited to enter into divine mystery, to try and see a deeper meaning or outcome in what seems illogical. When it seems impossible to see God’s reasoning, we then are invited to practice divine resignation and to sigh the prayer, “God’s will be done.”

Going on the offense is yet another good way to combat disillusionment. And how might we do this? English philosopher, Sir Philip Sidney gives us one answer in stating, “They are never alone that are accompanied with noble thoughts.” He encourages us to immerse ourselves in wholesome, uplifting ideas and activities, to fill our minds with goodness, beauty and that which raises our dignity, wisdom and prudence. He most likely would also tell us that it is better to error on the side of overly idealistic and optimistic than pessimistic and cynical.

We have an old proverb in Italian, Chi dorme coi cani, si leve con le pulsi: he or she who sleeps with dogs awakes with fleas. In other words, avoid bad company such as literature, so-called friend, and movies that continuously speak of only the darkest in life. This is not to contend we should censure out the dark side of reality and give a blind eye to it. Rather, it is to use good common sense and balance the good with the bad. Not all is bad, as the media often portrays with the world, our government, church and our jobs. Reporting on kindness, acts of charity, new, exciting creative happenings often isn’t as titillating as scandals, stories of corruption, and gruesome pictures of violence and disasters. Fantastic strides in making progress can be found everywhere. Imaginative creativity is all around us. And then there is God’s daily blessings that are forever nourishing us.

In the preface of our Eucharistic prayers, we are implored life up our hearts. We reply, “We lift them up to Lord.” When all is said about how to combat disillusionment, taking this prayer to heart is our best weapon of defense.