On Disappointment and Happiness

Disappointment happens—and it hurts. What’s worse is that there are opportunities for disappointment everywhere.While there’s nothing particularly modern about disappointment, modern communications technologies can amplify our awareness of disappointing events and also provide fora in which we can express the disappointments we feel. These technologies, in other words, have expanded our capacity for disappointment. Just as it’s now completely normal to encounter a Facebook post articulating disappointment with an occurrence on the other side of the world, it’s also long since become commonplace to posit “the internet” as a factor in leading people to become disappointed with the Church. If disappointment is a basic part of human experience, I believe that it’s worth thinking about what part disappointment plays in our efforts to build Zion and how, then, we can engage in that work in our current technological environment.

The weeping God of Moses 7 can teach us something about disappointment. When Enoch asks God, “How is it thou canst weep?” the reply comes:

Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency; And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood; And the fire of mine indignation is kindled against them; and in my hot displeasure will I send in the floods upon them, for my fierce anger is kindled against them.

God is disappointed because humans hate instead of love—and not just in the abstract, but in relation to “their own blood.” God responds to disappointment as we often do: with “fierce anger” and the threat of global calamity.

I’ll admit to being a little disappointed with God’s response here. Why should I pursue a relationship with such a being? Sure, I see the appeal in the idea of a God whose “heart … beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain,” as Terryl and Fiona Givens have put it, but this is also a God who, in the same sentence, plots the destruction of humankind. [1]

But why in general should we form relationships with people, institutions, or deities, given that they will almost inevitably let us down? I think that the answer is that there is no way for us to be happy without risking such relationships—and in framing this discussion by talking about disappointment, I do mean to emphasize the risk.

In choosing to form relationships we do not only risk experiencing disappointment, but, closer to the bone, we also risk causing it. In fact, entering into relationships makes it almost certain that we’ll cause some disappointment, and that can leave us painfully disappointed with ourselves.

If relationships are thus engines for disappointment, how can they produce happiness? I’ve written recently about friendship as a process of making ourselves present to others and creating space for them to be present to us, noting that this openness is a kind of vulnerability, or susceptibility to being wounded.

Here’s the thing about vulnerability: our liability to disappointment derives from our desire to be able to love and approve those people and institutions with which we associate, and to be loved and approved in return. For their (or our) love and approval to be meaningful, we have to know that the relationship is open to the revelation of disappointing realities on both sides. Meaningful love and approval require that disappointment be a live option.

I believe that redemptive relationships go beyond this, though: can we learn to love those aspects of other people that might justly disappoint us? This, it seems to me, is how Jesus loves us. The whole premise of the Atonement is that we, collectively and individually, cause disappointment, and yet Jesus, because of this and not in spite of it, chose to become human and take not only our disappointments but our very capacity to disappoint upon himself. He chose to save us by loving us as we are.

It’s only in the context of such love, I believe, that we can hope for those disappointing aspects of ourselves to change. This is why it’s so very important that we learn to love each other—and even the Church—in this way. One of the hardest questions that people and institutions face is deciding when to consider changing direction in the face of critique and when to stand their ground. The possibility for disappointing ourselves and others looms behind either choice, and this all too often produces defensive actions designed to forestall disappointment rather than enact either needed repentance or real integrity.

Only when we learn to love people and institutions in ways that make us vulnerable to the probability of disappointment can they open themselves up to the risks necessary to become their fullest and best selves—and the same is true for us. This openness is guaranteed to hurt us sometimes, and it also guarantees that we will cause hurt to others, but there is no other way for us to be truly happy—which means a richness of human connection extending well beyond self-contained contentment. This bounteous sociality is Zion, and we have to work together to build it, one act of love, vulnerability, and even disappointment at a time.

Notes

[1] Terryl and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012), 6.

Comments

  1. This is the challenge of my discipleship right now; the institution, the community, and even family members are not where I hope them to be in meeting my needs for understanding and acceptance. Instead of closing up to save myself from further hurt and disappointment, my challenge is to love through it. Christ never gives up on me in my continual disappointments, and that’s part of what makes the Gospel of Jesus Christ perfect. Yet another BCC post with exactly what I need to hear. Thanks Jason.

  2. “my challenge is to love through it.”

    Well said, Kristine A.

  3. “…modern communications technologies can amplify our awareness of disappointing events and also provide fora in which we can express the disappointments we feel. These technologies, in other words, have expanded our capacity for disappointment. • • • … it’s also long since become commonplace to posit ‘the internet’ as a factor in leading people to become disappointed with the Church.”

    The problem isn’t the technologies; it’s an institution that historically has being something less than forthright about its history, the evolution of its doctrines, and the fallibility of its leaders. Suggesting that there is correlation between the Internet and an increase in the number of members who have become disenchanted with church is akin to the Catholic Church faulting the invention of the printing press for the success of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Both statements are true only to the extent that the affected organizations lost control over the media by which they are portrayed to the outside world.

  4. I’m not citing the technologies as the cause of disappointment, but rather as media that amplify causes for disappointment already inherent in the institution. I think that the OP already agrees with your critique.

  5. Fair point, Jason.

    Your concluding observation—”Only when we learn to love people and institutions in ways that make us vulnerable to the probability of disappointment can they open themselves up to the risks necessary to become their fullest and best selves …”—contains a great deal of truth.

    What so many church leaders fail to realize is that are many, many members who would only respect them more if they were to say: “Hey, we really screwed up on this issue, and we’re sorry; we thought we we were doing the right thing at the time, but we were mistaken.” But this kind of candor does not seem to be in their DNA.

    I, for one, am much more inclined to follow a leader who will fess up to his errors and those of his predecessors than one who proffers the false assurance that he is incapable of leading me astray. Maybe, as you suggest, this will come once the church realizes the majority of members will stick around notwithstanding their disappointments, but I fear we are in for a long wait.

  6. Right, FarSide–especially your last paragraph. In line with what I wrote above, I don’t think that the Church can either undergo repentance or, perhaps more importantly, actually quite have integrity, until it owns up to the reality that it cannot but cause disappointment, because only then will we as members be able to love it and give ourselves to it fully. The Gospel Topics essays are a start, but only a start.

  7. The flip side of disappointment is surprise. And I think surprise is one of the chief engines of the gospel. Boris Pasternak was on to something when he said: “The unforeseen is the most beautiful gift life can give us.” Zion will be the biggest of surprises. One article put it this way: “God allows us to give up on this world, only to come roaring back with something better around the corner. It is not the unpredictability of life we should fear, but the absence of unpredictability. Surprise is about witnessing the pulling-away of the drab cloak that smothers a world steeped in mystery. Perhaps for our own good that cloak clings heavily to the earth and is not easily blown off its mooring. Otherwise, if we could see this world for the wondrous place it really is we may try to drink it in faster than we have capacity to hold.”

    http://www.realclearreligion.org/articles/2014/12/06/joyed_by_surprise.html

  8. Great comment, natesky. Maybe surprise is the next place I need to go in these ruminations about friendship and human relationships.

  9. In my mind, Zion works in two tenses or orientations: as a model that tries to mold our current behavior toward one another and as an aspiration for some future state. We all know that we can’t extrapolate our current model neatly onto Zion. So, the only way we can make Zion work in our minds is to expect that it will surprise us by breaking our current rules and complacencies in unknown ways. And since we can’t really provide ourselves with our own surprises, we have to leave it up to God. All we have to do is be open to the surprises that will come.

  10. I echo Jason’s observation about your comment, natesky. If it wasn’t for surprises and the uncontrollable messiness of life, I’d be bored out of my mind.

    I think your comments about Zion are also spot on. For my part, I can envision many different iterations of Zion, adjusted according to the needs/development/mindset of the participants. One thing that I’m certain about—and here, I’m paraphrasing an observation often made about money spent by merchants on advertising—half of what we’ve been taught about Zion or that we think we know is probably wrong. The problem is, we don’t know which half.

  11. It is safe to say that this post is one instance whereby technology has amplified my awareness of how lovely and thoughtful my fellow saints can be. Thanks for your thoughts, Jason! I am loving your musings on Zion building.