7/6/2008 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
At the outset, I must acknowledge that the subject of this column, the power of disappointment, is not my original idea. I came upon it while reading Gordon Marino’s essay, “In Praise of Disappointment,” in the June 27 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Marino is a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College.
As I read the essay, I recalled that many years ago, as I worked hard at being an existentialist in graduate school, I stumbled upon a comment Abraham Lincoln made during his address at New Salem, Ill., on March 9, 1832: “If the good people, in their wisdom, shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.”
As I interpreted Lincoln at the time, he had assessed disappointment for what it is: a valuable tool for recognizing and accepting life’s realities. From all I have read, Lincoln held few, if any, illusions about himself and the world around him.
I am newly attracted to the subject of disappointment because of the euphoria and pronouncements of “hope and change” surrounding the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama. Frankly, I have little regard for Obama’s campaign because of its inherent falsity.
In the end, much of it will disappoint millions of devotees because it has no room for failure and lost hope. Obama will not deliver on many promises, and many supporters will find themselves stung by hopelessness.
In his book, The Importance of Disappointment, sociologist and psychologist Ian Craib discusses the strength of recognizing disappointment: “The first duty of the human sciences is perhaps to hold on to both sides of the equation: that life can be good and made better, and that life ends in the ultimate disappointment of death. There is much in our modern world that increases disappointment and at the same time encourages us to hide from it: to act as if what is good in life does not entail the bad -for example … that we can grow without pain and loss, and in the end that we can grow without dying.”
With Obama and his supporters distancing themselves from everything deemed negative, reality and truth are the real casualties.
Hope and change mean that we must be “relentlessly positive,” to use Marino’s expression. We must be upbeat. We must smile. We must not complain. We must not criticize, even when criticism hits the mark. We must stifle bad news or, at the very least, condemn bad news as being perverse. We are being asked to look the other way. We are even pretending that Obama is “post-racial,” that the entire nation will move beyond race.
We are in for some big disappointments because we refuse to accept the simple truth that Obama is a phenomenon (“any extremely unusual or extraordinary thing or occurrence”) that has little, if anything, to do with the everyday realities of American life.
I am stunned at the speed at which we are running from disappointments. As Marino says, however, we should not run from disappointments because they “forge our lives much as hurricanes sculpt the shape of trees that survive them.”
Each day, I am accused of being negative. What my accusers do not know is that my apparent negativity is a refusal to relinquish my grip on the wisdom of the past – a wisdom that tells me that every experience, even a so-called bad one, is a source of learning, an opportunity for individual growth.
As the nation faces uniquely grave problems during this presidential election season, we would do well to come to terms with what I predict will be some serious disappointments. Hopes will be dashed, and some change will amount to no more than recycled efforts of the recent past.
Marino aptly describes the power of respecting disappointment: “We would have a stronger sense of solidarity if, much as the ancients bowed before fate, we paid disappointment its due and did not put so much pressure on one another to powder over our scars.”
I will add that we would be far better voters, if, like Lincoln, each of us became too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined when we do not experience the hope and change we wished for.