– a theological reflection on disappointment, frustration and anxiety
Disappointment is a very human experience, but not, perhaps, something we find it easy to talk about. It is not easy for us to look back on our lives and express disappointment about them, we often seem to want to justify our lives – it makes us feel better if we can look back on our lives with a certain amount of satisfaction about what we’ve been able to experience and enjoy. Furthermore it seems to me that this is the culture in which we live – a culture with an inbuilt bias to the optimistic and a suspicion of pessimism. Grumpiness is permitted when it is funny but not tolerated when it starts to become ‘boring’. Self-pity is mercilessly criticized as being one of the very worst of modern sins. What I observe is a constant pressure to be optimistic and positive. I understand this, it is not easy to live alongside people who are pessimistic and negative – generally speaking it is more pleasant to be with people who exude happiness and optimism. But, I believe, this bias towards optimism creates its own problems, especially the tendency to suppress disappointment and fail to acknowledge frustration and anxiety. Disappointment, frustration and anxiety are not thereby removed from our lives, they just go underground. So in this short essay I want to try and bring them out into the light of day to acknowledge their importance and seek to reflect on how they might be constructively engaged with. But first a few thoughts on where this bias towards optimism has come from.
Optimism is an essential characteristic of the Enlightenment
The Enlightenment was a period of nearly unbounded optimism and faith in the human race's ability to solve its own problems, including restructuring government and society along more reasonable lines
And it spread much more widely than we might immediately think. John Wesley, for instance, the founder of Methodism was successful, some have argued, because he managed to integrate heartfelt religion with the optimism of the 18th-century Enlightenment. This is particularly demonstrated by his doctrine of Christian Perfection. Rather than taking the view of the Calvinists that our destiny was preordained by God he believed we all have free will – we can decide to follow the way of God and we can decide to live holy lives. And not only that, it is possible for human beings on earth to achieve Christian Perfection – a life essentially free of sin. It is an optimistic theology which horrified Calvinists, but proved powerfully instrumental in enabling the British working class to join the modern age – they were no longer the victims of fate or divine predestination but the agents of their own moral progress (although, of course, Wesley believed this was dependent on first receiving divine grace).
I would argue, therefore, that the present-day bias towards optimism is rooted in the Enlightenment. We believe that science and technology is able to solve our problems – even those problems such as climate change which were created by science and technology in the first place. Capitalism depends on the belief that economic life will continue to grow and therefore drive forward human progress. A belief in optimism is deeply ingrained in the way we live our lives in the 21st-century and our culture tends to resist anything which challenges its hegemony. But I think for the sake of our own sanity we must challenge it, we must not suppress our disappointments beneath a relentless optimism, we must allow our human frustrations the air to breathe and face our anxieties without rejecting them as po-faced pessimism.
I am not wanting to say that optimism is all bad. It certainly has its place. Nor am I wanting demonize the Enlightenment as the source of all our problems and the bitter enemy of the church, for as the example of Wesley demonstrates the Enlightenment was as much a movement within the church as outside it. Furthermore Voltaire, one of the great characters of the Enlightenment, criticized unthinking optimism in his famous novel Candide. What I think is important to do is to identify the problem we have with optimism in our society and to try and understand what its cultural roots are.
Disappointment is a backward looking emotion. It happens when we look back on our lives and feel negative. Things did not work out as we expected or hoped, we made assumptions which were not fulfilled and a sense of sadness creeps over us. It is, therefore, a particularly middle-aged emotion when the disappointments have had time to build up and start to challenge the optimism of our youth. The danger at this point is that we start to try and justify ourselves. We tell the story of our life in such a way as to make ourselves look good. Our disappointing sexual relationships were not the complex and confusing episodes they felt like at the time, but a joyful and carefree time of youthful experimentation. The dead-end jobs which caused us so much misery and frustration, were an education in the ‘University of Life’. It is easy to put a spin on our disappointing lives. But acknowledging our disappointment can be a helpful guard against this temptation to reimagine our lives in a false and deceptive way. It can help us be honest and open to our own failings, and therefore learn from our past rather than continuing to make the same mistakes into our dotage.
When I look back on my own career in urban mission it is easy to make it sound exciting and positive. I had many experiences which were eye-opening and fascinating and there was a lot about it which I did genuinely enjoy, but it was also full of disappointments. I never really experienced the quality of community for which my soul hungered. There was also a paucity of resources which meant I spent a lot of time doing things at which I was competent, but often didn’t have the opportunity to fully use and develop my real gifts. I have found that it is only by acknowledging my disappointments, my failures and inadequacies that I am able to properly understand my career in urban mission and learn what it is teaching me about my present vocation.
Theologically I think disappointment makes us confront the problem of sin. Part of the optimistic secularizing agenda of influential strands within the Enlightenment has been to downgrade sin and push it to the margins. Talking about sin is considered to be bad taste and it is more likely to be the subject of a nudge and a wink and a laugh than serious reflection. But recently whilst reading the Collects from the Book of Common Prayer, written at a time when sin was taken very seriously, I found that thinking about sin in terms of disappointment was revealing. I think for Cranmer and his generation talking about sin was a way of confronting the disappointments of life. For them our failures and weaknesses could be constructed as sins – and therefore not as something that is simply inevitable and unavoidable, but as something which can be forgiven and therefore overcome. Similarly the wretchedness of life and the language of misery is a way of talking about the disappointments and intractable problems of life. Not having to be optimistic gave them the opportunity to truly confront pain and disappointment and also believe that through the work of Christ this wretchedness could be overcome and new life experienced.
Disappointment is therefore an important emotion that we should allow ourselves to feel. It enables us to have a realistic and transformative perspective on life, and especially when it is constructed in terms of sin it can lead us into a genuinely hopeful experience of forgiveness and new life.
Frustration is an emotion of the present. It is what I feel now when I can’t work things out, when things go wrong and my plans prove to be futile and mistaken. There is, of course, a close connection between frustration and disappointment, our present frustrations, if unresolved, become our future disappointments. Disappointment and frustration are like Grendel and Grendel’s mother stalking us throughout our lives.
I most commonly experience frustration because of my chronic illness and disabilities rooted in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I live constantly with the awareness of the things I can’t do – little things like walking down to the shops for a pint of milk (I like this example because it illustrates three particular frustrations in my life: my inability to walk any distance especially on hard surfaces, my avoidance of dairy products because of their impact on my sinuses and the fact that I live in a place where there aren’t any shops because my PTSD means I can’t cope with the pace and noise of the city!). In our optimistic age this kind of reflection on the things that we can’t do, is not encouraged. Rather it is demanded that we develop a ‘can-do’ mentality. The existence of frustrations is acknowledged but they are seen only as opportunities for the triumph of the human spirit over all obstacles. This is what I found most unhelpful about the pain management course which I attended at St. Thomas’s hospital – the only allowable outcome was overcoming my pain and achieving my goals, resigning myself and accepting my limitations was not a permitted outcome. Yet I have found that it is this very acceptance of the things I can’t do that is the pathway to healing, without this acceptance I simply keep pushing myself into doing things which reinforce my trauma and keep me frustrated.
Theologically the issue of frustration confronts us with human weakness. It forces us to accept human limitations and the failure of the human project to make ourselves supermen or man-gods or builders of the tower of Babel up to heaven. Our frustrations can be a sacrament when we accept that they are not simply obstacles that have not yet been overcome, but signs and symbols of everything we are unable to do as human beings. Accepting our frustrations as human weakness therefore opens us up to accepting the grace of God. We work for six days achieving some things, failing to achieve many others, only rarely truly accomplishing the desires of our hearts but on the seventh day we are called to rest: to stop achieving, to stop accomplishing and simply resting our human weakness in the goodness of God. It is in this place that we are able to receive the grace of God.
Together our frustrations and disappointments are crucial for our human well-being. Only by acknowledging and accepting them are we liberated from the need to achieve and able to enter into the rest for which our hearts are longing.
Disappointment and frustration haunt our lives, and they have a cousin who greets us from the future which we call anxiety. Maybe it is our experience of disappointment and frustration which makes us anxious, if everything in our life is and has been good why should we be anxious? But maybe anxiety is just inevitable, perhaps our luck will not hold and everything will start to fall apart in the unknown future. It is this unknowing which is the seed of anxiety and it is unavoidable no matter how hard our optimistic age tries to persuade us that we should stride forward with confidence and hope: as Tony Blair tried to persuade us during his first successful election campaign ‘Things can only get better’.
Personally I think optimism about the future has been a problem for me. I have tended to believe that things will be okay, that we will work them out and that I have the resources I need in order to overcome any problems which might emerge. I have now come to believe that this was not a sensible strategy for someone suffering from PTSD. I was actually much less resilient than I thought I was and all my optimism achieved was further disappointments and trauma. I could have done with being a lot more cautious – in fact what I needed to do was to pay attention to my anxieties rather than suppress them. I don’t know, maybe I am being wise in hindsight and that more caution would not have done me any good, but I think if I could have explored and reflected on my anxieties then perhaps I would have been able to make wiser decisions and put in place the resources and support I needed. This, of course, is hypothetical – but that’s the problem with the future, it always is hypothetical.
Perhaps this is why we are encouraged to live in the moment. But maybe this is just a way of trying to avoid the uncertainties of the future and the inevitable anxiety that this creates, for it is not possible to live an authentic human life without taking thought for the future. The other creatures with whom we share the world don’t seem to think about the future, they just live by instinct and respond to what they encounter day by day, but this is not the way of humanity – we must think about the future, and we must plan. This is our greatest strength – and our greatest weakness for it confronts us with anxiety’s big sister – fear.
As the epistle of John teaches us the theological answer to fear is love. That is human technology, human planning, human health and safety legislation cannot overcome fear and the disaster has it grins at us from the future. Only love overcomes fear and disaster. Why is this the case? St. Paul’s famous celebration of love in one Corinthians 13 is perhaps helpful. He links love with hope and faith. In the face of anxiety our first reaction might be to encourage hopefulness, but this, of course, brings us into the territory of optimism. The mainstream response to climate change is basically an optimistic one, we hope that human skill and technology will enable us to overcome the problems we have created for ourselves by our rapid rate of economic growth. Enlightenment models are deeply committed to this kind of optimism. Christian hope is different from this kind of technological optimism for it is rooted in God rather than humanity – that is it depends on faith, which is a belief that in all circumstances God will be with us. And it is certainly the case that a strong and well grounded faith is a good response to anxiety but it has some tendency to be individualistic. Love, on the other hand, is rooted in our interconnectedness and is therefore a more profound response to fear and anxiety. We cannot necessarily prevent the disasters which are lurking in the future, there is no way we can guarantee that everything will be safe and secure. Terrible things will happen. The most meaningful response is the love and compassion that we give and receive in the midst of these disasters. It is in this that we experience the love of God that truly overcomes fear.
Anxiety is the fear that we will be frustrated and disappointed in the future. And we should be anxious, properly handled it can help us develop the understanding we need in order to undertake the human task of planning for the future and therefore revealing and celebrating the full potential of the earth. An approach to the future characterized only by optimism leads us into more terrible and more intractable disaster. Anxiety is not to be avoided, it is to be embraced – it is the bulwark we need against foolhardy adventurism. It is the beginning of wisdom.
Nonetheless we should not fall into the trap of painting too rosy a picture of disappointment, frustration and anxiety. Disappointment can become chronic and disabling, trapping us in painful memories which disable our ability to live in the present and plan for the future. Frustration also can boil over into a constant sense of anger and destructive irritation, making it difficult for us to relate to our fellow human beings. And, as we are very well aware, anxiety can also become a chronic condition which overwhelms the human spirit. This kind of anxiety is now sometimes diagnosed as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, it may be helpful for some people to have such a diagnosis but personally I have my doubts – pathologising anxiety, or frustration, or disappointment is probably not going to help us embrace them as a normal part of life. What I think is more helpful is to recognize the existence of a deeper level of anguish which can haunt the normal struggles of life.
I find this powerfully illustrated by the biblical character of King Saul. His life is pervaded by disappointment, frustration and anxiety but it also descends into an intractable experience of anguish. Saul never really wanted to become King – he was anxious about it but the acclaim of the people persuaded him to put aside his anxieties and take on the burden of kingship. But he found kingship a deeply frustrating experience, he did experience some military success but he never seemed to be able to get things right and he was a source of deep disappointment to the prophet Samuel who was his advisor. Furthermore he experienced a number of depressive episodes which were only alleviated by the music provided by David, yet ironically it was this very person David who was to be the greatest source of frustration and anxiety to Saul as he came to see him as a threat to his status as king. Eventually Saul descended into a state of deep anguish, especially after the death of Samuel – his frustration and anxiety became chronic and it was only alleviated by his death in battle. Saul was then succeeded by David, and David certainly had his own disappointments – the death of his dear friend Jonathan, his own moral failings in the case of Bathsheba, and frustration and anxiety were constant companions. In fact to such a degree that he became the famed author of many of the Psalms which explore every aspect of disappointment, frustration and anxiety. Yet David managed to find a way through which seem to be hidden from Saul. The David which we encounter in the Psalms was certainly aware of anguish, but he was not overwhelmed by it. Perhaps it is this very ability to articulate the experience of disappointment, frustration and anxiety which saved David from the anguish of Saul. After the death of Samuel Saul’s anguish drives him to consult a medium and after the ghostly encounter with Samuel we are told
Immediately Saul fell full-length on the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel; and there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night (1 Samuel 28:20)
How different from the David of the Psalms who is able to cry out to God after his murderous adultery with Bathsheba
For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight… Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities (Psalm 51)
David’s ability to articulate his feelings enables him to encounter anguish but not be overwhelmed by it. For him disappointment, frustration and anxiety do not become chronic conditions which keep him trapped in anguish rather they are just the difficult stuff of life which he honestly confronts. The Bible teaches us that David was a man after God’s own heart – he was not perfect, far from it, but the desire of his heart to worship God kept him steady through his tumultuous life. In the end he was not sustained by any kind of optimism but a realistic honesty celebrated in a legacy of praise
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise
This disappointing life
Dreams turned out to be only
Hopes never swelled into substance
I touch life but never grasp it
Feel it on the tips of my fingers
but never lodged in the palm of my
I heard them preach hope
And those other ones too
preaching the gospel of happiness
but it jarred
had no rhythm
so I stayed in the old way
where my grandfathers walked:
Searching the Scriptures
for the clue
that would swell into full-bodied life
And it was disappointing
this Protestant optimism didn’t work
not that it failed
there was love
a life rich in the rhythm of story
But no matter how hard I tried
the seed did not grow
the womb remained barren
the belly remained empty
So I come to the old religion
drop the dreams of freedom
forget to be optimistic
and try to learn
with Abraham ‘look from the place where you are’
and receive what I am offered
this disappointing life
that limps toward God