The Gift of Disillusionment

            It’s a hard word to hear…disillusionment.

            In our relationships: Someone we’ve trusted does something that hurts or disappoints us.  We feel deflated, confused, betrayed.  

            At work: The organization we are working for makes a decision that shocks or upsets us. We realize we’ve been trusting the organization to act a certain way, but it makes a decision that betrays its stated values.  

            In politics and public life:   A leader or group performs in a way that seems to be counter to basic principles we thought everyone shared.

            In our spiritual journeys: Something happens in our life we thought would not happen if we are being faithful, responsible and caring. 

            “I’ve become so disillusioned…” someone says and describes what’s happened.  And we hear tones of sadness, detachment or even depression.

            But there’s another way to hear it.

            Parker Palmer, a writer who has been a mentor for me and many others over the years, has a surprising perspective on this word.  As he said in an interview with Krista Tippet:

            When a friend says, “I’m so disillusioned!” about this or that, why do we say, “I’m so sorry! How can I help?” We ought to say, “Congratulations! You’ve just lost an illusion! That means you’ve moved that much closer to reality, the only place where it’s safe to stand!”[i]

            This insight has been very useful for me. 

            Let’s start with personal relationships.

            I remember hearing a radio program with a noted marriage and family therapist.  He was talking about the need for all couples to use marital counseling to truly get to know each other.

            “But we got to know each other when we were dating,” people had told him.

            “No, dating is about deception,” he said. “It’s about you wanting to see the best in the other person, just as you are working hard to show them your best side. But after a while, you might start to see each other as you really are.  That’s a good time to begin to really get to know each other.”

            Instead of dis-illusionment leading to despair, it can lead to increased clarity.

            In the workplace, I’ve been on both sides of disillusionment.

            As a nonprofit executive director, from time to time I had to terminate employees. I was restricted by labor law and HR policies from giving a satisfying explanation to the other employees.  We’d talked often about “being a family” together, and abrupt terminations led people to say, “What’s going on? I thought we were a family. Are we just a heartless business?” 

            When that happened at Hospice of Santa Barbara, I thought about it for several weeks, trying to figure out how to describe what kind of entity we were.  I had an idea and made a presentation at a staff meeting. First, I listed the ways in which we were a business – our financial practices, our legal limitations, etc.  Then I listed ways in which we could be caring and supportive of each other within those boundaries.

            “Without meeting the requirements of a good business,” I said, “We would not exist.  But within those restrictions, we will try to be like a family when we can. So, let’s think of ourselves as a “Biz-imly” – a business first, and like a family when possible.”  That seemed to reframe it in a way that people found useful, and employees would quote that back to me as time went on.

            I’ve also been on the employee side – seeing “upper management” make decisions that to me were clearly contrary to their espoused values.  It helped for me to say to myself, “The idea that they would live up to their values has been an illusion.  It’s been “dissed. I won’t make that mistake again.”

            Disillusionment is something we can easily experience in political life. That what George Washington felt when he left office. He had hoped the leaders of the new country would be dedicated to personal humility and public virtue, which he had modeled so well. He was disheartened to see them falling into factions and cynical politics.  But James Madison was more realistic about human nature. He helped shape the constitution in a way that would accommodate selfish partisanship by a series of checks and balances.  Washington’s (hopeful) illusion led to his despair; Madison’s clarity led to a constitution that has, for the most part, endured.  I see leaders like Barack Obama and John Lewis as people who have always held on to the highest hopes and ideals, but also had a realistic understanding of human behavior and political realities.

            Disillusionment in our spiritual journeys can take many forms and are almost always a result of assumptions we have made.

            In Buddhism, it’s a given that our human nature is prone to see permanence where there is no permanence.  The path, then, is to be always vigilant about our illusions with the goal of seeing how things “really are.”  A well-known quote from the Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide captures how truth can follow loss: “Barn’s burnt down / Now I can see the moon.”

            In the Biblical traditions, it can be complicated.  There are passages that suggest people of faith will be protected from harm and disappointment.  Other verses are more realistic. Jesus staked his life on the belief that the one enduring reality is the love and justice of God.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – meaning those who have been emptied of false hopes and illusions — “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

            One qualification: I don’t offer this perspective on disillusionment as some glib, “tea-bag wisdom” that assumes dealing with disappointments is easy. There are losses in life that cut very deep into our souls and won’t vanish with a clever word play.

            But I invite you to give it a try. Next time you feel “disillusioned,” ask yourself if you’ve come closer to reality.  And don’t give up.

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“Barns Burnt Down,” fiber art by Rebecca Mezoff