April 12, 2016
Contending with Disillusion in Disillusioning Times
"We live in a time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power, and acceleration."
"The primordial blessing, 'increase and multiply,' has suddenly become a hemorrhage of terror. We are numbered in billions and massed together, marshaled, numbered, marched here and there, taxed, drilled, armed, worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, surfeited with everything, nauseated with the human race, and with ourselves, nauseated with life."
"As the end approaches, there is no room for nature. The cities crowd it off the face of the earth."
"As the end approaches, there is no room for quiet. There is no room for solitude. There is no room for thought. There is no room for attention, for the awareness of our state . . . "
"In the time of the end there is no longer room for the desire to go on living. The time of the end is the time when men call upon the mountains to fall upon them, because they wish they did not exist."
When we add to Thomas Merton's description of end time dysfunctional governments, questionable religious leaders, brutal wars, an erratic economy, worldwide catastrophes and physical and mental ailments that sometimes plague us, we have the perfect ingredients for disillusion and its companions: acute skepticism and little to no zest for life.
It is no exaggeration to state that disillusionment is growing in our times. Nor is it an overstatement to say this is one of the reasons behind wars, terrorism and many of our societal ills. When we no longer see light beyond the tunnel we will either withdraw from life, become paralyzed by fear, or strike out against the world. How, then, do we practice Christ's admonition to keep the faith with all this happening around us? How do we practice St. Paul's admonition to fight the good fight?
The opposite of acute skepticism and a lack of zeal is being relentless in bolstering our faith and cultivating a healthy zest for life. These two qualities are the essence of making true progress. When they are missing, the door is left open for disillusionment. One of disillusionment's worst effects on us is the destruction of our human spirit. What is one of our best means for countering this?
In his book, Power and Responsibility, the renowned theologian Father Romano Guardini gives us our answer. He begins with the generally accepted notion of progress, "By means of ever more penetrating science and effective techniques, man's power over the world's given conditions steadily mounts. This means increased security, usefulness, well-being, and progress."
Guardini then challenges this notion, "As much as we have developed greater security measures, we tend to overly depend on security to the loss of being able to think, fend and develop our own means of security." Guardini would concede we have made great strides in medicine and science and they are good. But he would tell us that it is also true a good number of us are using them as crouches, thus surrendering our innate ability to maintain health naturally. It is true we have cut time in half in much of what we do. We may fly from one place to another much faster. However, the flip side of this is crowding our schedules and running ourselves into the ground.
Guardini concludes, "No matter where we start from, invariably we arrive at the same fundamental conclusion: the fundamental correction of cultural ills does no lie in the adoption of utilitarian reforms . . . In the last analysis, the quality of culture is determined by the decisions of the spirit." Here we need to ask, what exactly does this spirit look like in action?
First, it is a spirit aimed at cultivating a will to health. This translates into meeting the day with a zest and looking forward to imbibing in its blessings. It means to live the Canticle of Daniel that reminds us to bless all the blessings of Mother Nature and the earth we enjoy.
Second, it is a spirit that is on guard against anything that can shake and destroy a faith that is vital to our well-being. It means heeding St. Paul and Christ when they implore us to keep the faith.
Third, it consists in a sure instinct and developing sound principles of good versus evil, happiness versus unhappiness, rather than letting others dictate these principles. Here we are reminded of the Scottish proverb, "Learn young, learn fair, learn old, learn more," and we can add, "learn always and build good instincts!"
Finally, it is a spirit that utilizes it natural powers of self-renewal. It is indomitable determination to pick ourselves up off the mat when knocked down.
In his book Utopia, St. Thomas More writes, "If you can't completely eradicate wrong ideas or deal with inveterate vices as effectively as you could wish, that's no reason for turning your back on public life altogether. You wouldn't abandon ship in a storm just because you could not control the wind." Disillusionment often deflates the very spirit of which Guardini speaks, tempting it to give up on life. How, then, do we cultivate his understanding of true progress and keep afloat in the stormy seas of disillusionment?
On the second floor of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., a quote by English poet, courtier and soldier Philip Sidney gives us one good answer, "They are never alone that walk with noble thoughts."
Sidney would counsel us to cultivate an eye for creative, learned minds that are making our world more livable, exciting and inspirational. He would suggest that we envision Merton's time of end in terms of a brighter, more hopeful future. And how does this translate?
I am fortunate to live three blocks from the mall in Washington, D.C. Each summer students from around the world are chosen to construct energy efficient homes on it. Their demo-homes often consist of new types of insulation, ways of recycling water, utilizing solar and wind power, and imaginative structural designs aimed at taking advantage of the environment.
Listening to the enthusiasm and ingenuity of these young engineers reflects Sidney's meaning of walking with noble ideas par excellence. Disillusionment tends to make us feel there is nothing worth getting excited about. It echoes the opening chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes in which we hear, "Vanities of vanity, all is vanity." Possessing an eye for exciting creativity inspires us to open our eyes wider and to see the awesome possibilities life possesses. In the words of Isaiah, we are reminded a new and glorious Jerusalem awaits us.
It is true, as Thomas Merton observes, more and more there is "no room for nature . . . our cities are crowding it off the face of the earth." Again, Sidney would encourage us to have an eye for a new and exciting appreciation of nature that is springing up around us.
Below the U.S. Capitol stands the Washington Botanical Gardens. A year doesn't pass in which it isn't portraying creative means for preserving nature in our crowded cities, suburbs and countryside. Not only is this beginning to happen, but also we are finding that being close to the soil is therapeutic. Here we might pause and ask why this is so?
When we plow the earth, plant it and experience new life, we are ushered into the order, rhythms and cycles of earth's life. As one spiritual writer observed, we enter into the realm of the Garden of Paradise where human life began. We enter into God's creation and the divine charm of nature. This charm can happen anywhere we chose, even in a big-crowded city, or the most squalor situations. For example, exhibits at the botanical gardens encouraged city folks to grow vegetables and flowers on their balconies and in sunny locations within their apartments. For those who have a backyard or outdoor decks, it was suggested that a nature spot be created by planting climbing, big leaf vines that create a forest-like environment.
As a child I remember my Italian relatives growing grape vines in their backyards that created the feeling of being surrounded by lush greenery in the midst of the city.
Speaking of city living, many of their tall buildings are now sporting roof top gardens that combat pollution, save energy, produce food and flowers and beautify.
Here again, Thomas More would encourage us not to turn our back on our environment, but rather to keep looking forward to the enormous possibilities waiting to be embraced.
Guardini would add this is what is having a zest for life means. And we can add this is how to best counter disillusionment. It will find no place in our life if it is filled with the excitement of inventiveness, creativity and the entrepreneur spirit with which God endowed us.
Fostering a sense of humor is another excellent means for combating disillusionment. Disillusionment often tends to make us dower. When it strikes, we tell ourselves life shouldn't be this way. I don't deserve this. Life is nothing but one big cross after another.
In the book The Virtues, Guardini reminds us everyone and everything have a comic side.
Disillusionment is the direct antithesis of the reality, causing us to be overly serious, grave and intense. A sense of humor, the one thing that separates us from the animal world most, is suppressed. When this happens, life tends to lose its sanity.
In his description of lunacy, the well-known English writer G.K. Chesterton shows us how disillusionment generates it. He states the Latin word for it comes from our word, moon. He then points out the moon is a circle and as with all circles there is no means of escape. Once inside a circle, we are circumscribed. And so it is with human lunacy. If we let ourselves become all bound up with disillusionments, it can turn us into raving maniacs and consume us. One of humor's most awesome powers is its ability to break us out of the circle of doom and gloom. It enables us to take a breather, to refresh and re-energize. On this point, Mark Twain observes, "Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritation and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place." Medically speaking, Dr. Norman Causias states, "Humor used at the proper time can help break the 'panic cycle' that so often accelerates the patient's illness or state of mind. Laughter can broaden the focus and diffuse the intensity of negative thoughts, thereby aiding the patient's ability to gain control." When we turn to the bible, scripture scholar Donald Senior wrote in the 2010 Catholic Digest, "Religion --- much like life itself --- is full of little bits of irony and paradox that make us smile . . .Abraham finds it humorous when God tells him --- an old, old man --- that his equally old wife will bear him a son and that his descendents will be as numerous as the stars."
When once looking for a good definition of humility, I came across an author who pointed out it enables us, among other things, to transcend ourselves. And how does this happen? By reminding us we aren't in control of life. God is in control. It encourages us to look beyond our little world and to enter into God's world, and God's plan for it. In doing so, we put ourselves in the position of seeing from afar a clearer and broader picture of life. The equation between being earthbound and heaven-bound is better balanced. And too, humility's transcending powers give us the breathing space needed to step back and compare the world's oddities in light of God who sometimes writes with crooked lines.
St. Paul gives us yet another means for keeping disillusionment at arms length. If anyone should have been disillusioned, it was he when dealing with the Corinthians.
Everything that could go wrong went wrong.
In looking at this period in Paul's life Cardinal Carlo Martini asks what kept him going? He answers it was Paul's charism. He knew his mission!
Disillusionment tends to destroy our purpose. When things don't add up to our liking, life can seem like one big meaningless travesty. Meaning not only keeps us going but keeps us alive.
During World War II, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl spent three years in the German concentration camp, Dachau. There he witnessed prisoners who should have died survive, while others that should have survived died. In studying this phenomenon, he learned that those who survived had a will to meaning, while those who died had lost all meaning in their lives.
No matter our stage in life, the meaning of life can never be taken for granted. As those surviving prisoners witnessed, working continuously at defining our meaning is life itself. Meaning is one of the most, if not the most, powerful driving forces we possess for dispelling disillusionment and keeping our forward progress alive and well.
In the final analysis we learn that disillusionment is closely related to love. When that which we love is lost, doesn't materialize or is destroyed life becomes disillusioning. Love has a way of causing us to romanticize, and to feel its goodness, beauty and wholesomeness are endless. Reality would tell us there is nothing wrong about romanticizing about this as long as we realize nothing lasts forever. To keep disillusion from overcoming us we need to remember life is threefold: love, frustration and continuous reconciliation between these two.