It’s not often I get to have candid conversations with people about what I really think. Rarer still do I find the freedom to talk about how I really feel: particularly, how I feel about these last 18 months since I graduated from college. But when I do, I generally drop the word disillusionment as the best description of my experience thus far in “the real world.” And even from cursory conversations with various young people, I know I’m not the only one.
When we were young, we learned to wonder, to hope, and to find solace in the fact that anything that attempted to dash that wonder and hope could be conquered. We learned on the sports field, in the classroom, by our music lessons, and in our homes that obstacles can be overcome, challengers defeated, dreams actualized, bruises healed. And when we did experience failure, we learned it didn’t really matter that much, anyway–pass the ketchup, please. And so we charged out into the world self-confident and hopeful that while all of those people don’t seem to be able to handle the burden of life, that’s just because they haven’t learned the secrets that we have. We believed that “the good life” of success, solidarity, and satisfaction was only a matter of proper planning and thoughtful execution, that life was offering hope and joy and justice and peace behind a door whose key we held in our hand, courtesy of all those years of education, adolescent experience, and proper upbringing.
Then we walked out our front door. And it didn’t take long to realize that Matthew Arnold had been right:
“The world, which seems / to lie before us like a land of dreams / so various, so beautiful, so new / hath really neither joy, nor beauty, nor light / nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain / and we are here on a darkling plain / swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight / where ignorant armies clash by night.”
The illusion of a world of certainty and peace and attainment was quickly exposed as a fraud as the darkness of reality overshadowed the light of our dreams for what life could be like. We’re in the winter of our disillusionment and April showers seem a long way off, and many times an illusion altogether.
I wrote those words in October, and these past few months have only served to confirm them. Life is just too hard and too big and too confusing to fit into my neat paradigms. What was I thinking, being so confident that I had what it took to engage the world? I stepped out into the vast landscape of heavy responsibility, sluggard relationships, isolation and doubt, and endless possibilities for failure. And it didn’t take long before that strong confidence turned into fear and capitulation and utter disillusionment. And everyone is struggling–which only makes the realization of ideals lost that much heavier.
I feel such a burden to be significant, to arrive, to find a place of rest and satisfaction in the attainment of the right life. And very quickly I have learned that it’s a burden that cannot be shouldered. The burden of existence, as Kierkegaard says, leads me to despair.
And so faced with the burden of existence, I’ve been tempted to swing the other way and live like an aesthete, attending to the immediate, the sensation, and the recollection of past experience as a way to shuffle off my burden and replace it with the comfort of a warm shower. I have tried to run away rather than taking up the burden of responsibility in an unreasonable world. And yet I can never fully distract myself from the fact that life is terrifying, people are hurtful, and I’m my own worst enemy. And I can’t ignore the fact that everyone else is experiencing the same thing.
Franz Kafka has an intriguing darkly comedic story that addresses these feelings, I think. I think I’ll share it with you in its entirety:
“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”
“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.
I think at some point I found myself the mouse, running to walls of distraction and immediacy to give me comfort amidst the terrible openness of an arid world. And yet these walls only direct me to the inevitable trap that I had been running from all along.
But like this mouse, it seems that recognizing the fact that I cannot escape the burden of existence does me no good. For if I turn from my distractions and the traps of the immediate, I only find myself face to face with a greater predator. And no matter what, this life will crush me and swallow me whole.
Is all this too vague and abstract? How do you really talk about something that we all feel but don’t really want to think about or even know how to verbalize when we do? I guess that’s why we like the word disillusionment. It seems to encapsulate that complex feeling that I think we’re all wrestling with: life is harder than I thought it would be, I’m a worse person than I thought I would be, God isn’t who I thought He was, people aren’t who I want them to be, the days are endless and brief–and while sorrows last for a night, burdens come with the morning.
What kind of a world are we living in where some of my 9th grade students have suicidal friends and suicidal thoughts and I have to seriously tell my class that no matter what they are going through, suicide is never an option?
What do you do with the fact that people don’t get better? That healing and health and wholeness seem to be an exception to the rule? And that you find yourself far from the exception?
But then I look around, and I see those dear friends who have been such a bright spot in Charlotte. And I see the spiritual growth of people I’ve been praying for for years. And I see prayers answered. And God seems so real and awe-some.
I spend an evening reading a novel. I cook a meal. I enjoy an evening with friends. I make my students laugh. I break a sin pattern. I write a piece of music.
I look around and the cat isn’t to be found. And this bitter world seems to be offering me something sweet, something good, something I can savor and swallow. And it seems this great wall of disillusionment was really an illusion all along and that the self-protection of cynicism had been the one thing holding me back from savoring the sweet sensation of this wonderful world.
Somehow both of these things are true. Life is so hard and disappointing and dark. Life is so good and exciting and full of wonder.
And the only thing I’ve learned to do with this fact is to fully open myself up to both. I have experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows since I’ve been in Charlotte, and that’s how it should be. I’ve come to learn that we cannot escape the tragedy of this world–and if you know anything about tragedy, it’s those who try to escape it who meet the most tragic of ends. We must bear it with a spirit willing to weep and wince. And we must continue to pursue the simple gifts and simple pleasures that God gifts to us as respite from the scorching heat of this arid land. For this is what it really means to be human in an inhumane world. And we know that one day, He will make all things new.
But in the mean time, we can say with Tennyson:
“We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; / One equal temper of heroic hearts / Made weak by time and fate but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”