Whilst discussing my hopes and expectations for the San Francisco Giants with Mark Scaramella, he suggested I try my hand at writing about disappointment. I just hope my attempt doesn’t disappoint him.
“Disappointment is a sort of bankruptcy—the bankruptcy of a soul that expends too much in hope and expectation.” Eric Hoffer
What is disappointment? The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines disappointment as: dejection or distress caused by the non-fulfillment of desire or expectation. Substitute the word suffering for distress and we land smack dab at the outset of Buddhist philosophy. The First Noble Truth (and I have yet to read a satisfactory explanation of why the Four Noble Truths are noble rather than big or unavoidable or groovy) is that life is suffering. I recently read an article in a Buddhist magazine suggesting that suffering might not be the most accurate translation of the Sanskrit word Buddha purportedly used. The article suggested that annoying might be a more accurate translation. And in some texts the First Noble Truth is stated as: Life is full of suffering (though not necessarily completely full, which would allow for the occasional pizza, chocolate bar, or delightful flirtation).
But seriously folks, the Second Noble Truth states that the cause (or origin) of suffering is attachment. If we can learn not to be attached to things and people and baseball teams winning the World Series, or even just to being alive, then our suffering will lessen and might even disappear entirely. And check this out: in the absence of suffering, we would still be alive, which is a blatant contradiction of the First Noble Truth and necessitates restating the First and Second Noble Truths as: Life is suffering (or disappointing) unless we aren’t attached to anything (very much), in which case life is…what? Joyful? Maybe. I don’t know.
Here is what I think Buddha said: “The First and Second Groovy Truths combine to say that we suffer disappointment if we are attached to any sort of outcome, such as owning an elephant or getting laid. Indeed, if we can learn to dispense with expectations, we will cease to be disappointed, and in the absence of disappointment our suffering will vanish.” Since no one knows precisely what Buddha said, that’s my guess.
“Rigid beliefs make disappointments seem unbearable, whereas realistic beliefs help us to accept disappointment and go on from there.” Eileen Kennedy-Moore
The root of disappointment is appointment, a word that joined the ranks of our ancestral vocabulary shortly after Olde English morphed into Middle English and our various vernaculars mingled shamelessly with French. The French word was appointement, and meant an agreement, a contract, a decree. “We hereby make an appointment, honey, to meet in the forest for some hanky panky.” From which it follows that a disappointment was the breaking of an agreement, the violation of a contract, or the ignoring of a decree.
Thus we might construe that an expectation is an agreement we make with ourselves, i.e. that the Giants are going to win the World Series, and the violation of this agreement would be a disappointment.
“Nobody succeeds beyond his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectations.” Ralph Charell
I expected I would be an immensely successful writer and musician. That was my conscious expectation. My unconscious expectation was that I would be a colossal failure. The trajectory of my career as a writer and a musician is a perfect reflection of those dueling expectations, with the unconscious expectation always eventually trumping my conscious efforts. For many years I blamed others for the recurring disappointments of my life; but I understand now that the sabotage of my creative efforts was an inside job.
For instance, just as my second novel Forgotten Impulses was about to be published in 1980, I received an excited call from my editor at Simon & Schuster. Time magazine was going to run a big fat rave review of the novel, so fat and big that an additional fifteen thousand copies of Forgotten Impulses were being printed, and Sales, previously reluctant to support the book, had finally agreed to put some real money into promotion and distribution. The next day I got a call from a Time photographer arranging to take my picture for the review. The photo shoot was a dream come true, and the photographer’s last words to me were, “The buzz in New York says your book will be huge.”
Three days before the issue of Time containing the rave was to go to press, the review was inexplicably pulled. The Sales honchos cancelled all promotion and distribution of Forgotten Impulses, and cancelled the publication of my next novel, Louie & Women, for which Simon & Schuster had paid a large advance. And my mainstream writing career, for all intents and purposes, was destroyed. Why? I never discovered the outside why, but I have no doubt that in the ballroom of my psyche the demons gleefully celebrated the triumph of self-loathing.
Thinking back to that particular disappointment, and to many other similar experiences with my books and screenplays and music, I feel disappointed anew. And what I find most interesting about the sensations attendant to my disappointment is that they are indistinguishable from the telltale feelings of another emotional state I know a great deal about: depression.
Depression, one might say, is a state of constant disappointment. But why would someone be constantly disappointed? Well, according to the Second Groovy Truth, we suffer disappointment if we are attached to any sort of outcome. Thus constant disappointment must be the result of a constant attachment to things being a particular way. And wouldn’t constant attachment to feeling rotten have to be a deep and hardwired propensity, as in a propensity developed in childhood? I think so. I think it is only human to be disappointed about losing a game or not getting a job we wanted or getting dumped by our girlfriend. But staying disappointed, I contend, is a neurotic tendency engendered in us by those in charge of engendering our tendencies when we were infants and children.
“I am not in this world to live up to other people’s expectations, nor do I feel that the world must live up to mine.” Fritz Perls
So maybe the Giants won’t win the World Series this year, and maybe this article isn’t what Mark had in mind when he suggested I write about disappointment; but now that I have explored disappointment for the last two weeks, and exhumed some of those pesky demons still inhabiting my innards, I am confident that my disappointment about the Giants or anything else will not be as great as it might otherwise have been. Why? Because the demons of disappointment lose their power in the light of conscious scrutiny. And I am now prepared to proclaim, “So what if we didn’t win the World Series? The important thing is we gave it our best shot. We played the game with all our hearts, and that is victory enough.”
(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, October 2010)