The Importance of Disappointment

There’s a lovely passage by Olivia Lang, quoted in this review of her recent book, which reminds me of what Ian Craib called the importance of disappointment:

There is a gentrification that is happening to cities, and there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. Amidst the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings — depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage — are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice or, on the other hand, to the native texture of embodiment, of doing time, as David Wojnarowicz memorably put it, in a rented body, with all the attendant grief and frustration that entails.

Craib’s argument extends beyond our relationships with others, but I think it’s here that his analysis is most incisive. Our relationships, particularly romantic ones, involve an “emotional attachment and interlocking that makes … control difficult” and yet we strive for such control all the more in its experienced absence. An inability to live with the disappointments relationships bring, a reflection of Lang’s ’emotional gentrification’ in which difficulties and disappointments are seen as problems to be solved rather than an ineradicable feature of the life we share with others, engenders a deep fear of things ‘not being ok’: this self, this relationship, this life. But in doing so, our capacity to sit with experiences of disappointment gradually finds itself hollowed out. Feelings that might otherwise be fleeting come to be seen as inarguable incitements to action. We must act. Now. Because things are not ok. But our capacity to experience things as ‘ok’ is reliant upon our sustained engagement and ability to live with entanglement, in spite of all the threats to autonomy and constraints on control that implies. The more we habitually feel the need to run in the face of things not being ‘ok’, the less able we are experience and enjoy precisely that which we are inclined to see ourselves as running towards.

Though Craib makes no allusions to Buddhism, it strikes me his argument has such connotations. The ‘powerful self’ he describes operates under the illusion that if only we can arrange the pieces of our lives in the right order, we can escape disappointment and enjoy a perpetual sense of contentment. But in doing so, we gradually disfigure ourselves, as what Craib calls “our primitive fantasies of complete satisfaction” come to constitute the plate tectonics of our adult lives. In doing so, we seek “the protection of a fragile self, one that cannot be risked in the reality of a relationship and one that cannot bear to know itself”. The possibilities to move beyond that fragility, for it to grow into the simple vulnerability which characterises all of us, relies on our ability to live with disappointment. Not necessarily to live with this disappointment, Craib isn’t advocating passivity, but with disappointment as such. To the extent that we do this, relationships with others of whatever sort cease to be experienced as latent threats and drains on the self, instead opening up to the possibility of acts of “love that can actually strengthen the self, reinforce one’s own sense of inner goodness and the ability to do good”.

This doesn’t entail the endless expression of disappointment. To express it can be another form of escape, avoiding the difficult experience of sitting with disappointment by articulating it, perhaps in a way directed at the object of that disappointment. It robs us of the opportunity to understand the character of the particular disappointment, the possibility of distinguishing between an antipathy to a situation that might have to change and a generalised reluctance to live with any feelings of antipathy. For the fragile self to expel the disappointment through speech can serve the same purpose as fleeing from it through activity. Both reflect what Craib describes as a “desire to get out of the mess of life”. We can seek such an escape in others and turn on, or from, them when they fail to provide it. But we’ll never escape disappointment because such ‘mess’ is an ineluctable part of human existence. It resides in those experiences of “being together in the same place, living together in the same home, undergoing the same events together” and, in so far as we flee disappointment, we turn from the possibility of such sharing taking a sustained form. Our fragile selves cannot exist for long in such shared realities and that is why we need to move beyond them.

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