Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Disillusionment

Can a state of disillusionment ever be coherent?

As a feeling, it is difficult to experience as anything but painful. It seems defined with the bad: it is a poignant sorrow, arrived at only when one realizes that a previous pleasure--or a previously pleasant part of one's life--has passed, and can only be partially recaptured at the expense of intellectual or moral honesty.

Yet such honesty itself requires us to appreciate being set free from an illusion. We cannot but feel, after such an experience, that having seen that illusion from both in front of and behind the curtain, we are now competent judges, in John Stuart Mill's sense. Knowing both sides, we have moved beyond an immature stage. This is progress, and it is to be celebrated.

Aside from such vague dissonance, however, disillusionment occasions a new problem, when we encounter those who have not yet seen behind the curtain: do we attempt to rip it aside, or not?

If we are at our best in such moments, we want to help, to offer the benefit of our experience to others. Yet this is a path--well, not really a path at all. It is a wall topped with razor wire, and it's not clear what's on the other side.

To tell a story of one's disillusionment is, very likely, to tell a story of one's failures. (For I have sworn thee fair, after all, and thought thee bright, who art as black as hell, as dark as night.) Such a story is a gracious offering. At the beginning of his essay on discussion, Montaigne notes that he learns better "by counter-example than example," and offers his own reflections on his imperfections in hopes that he "may teach someone how to fear them." But he also, too truly, notes that "when all has been said, you never talk about yourself without loss: condemn yourself and you are always believed: praise yourself and you never are."

More importantly, life in front of the curtain feels comfortable for those who are living there. Efforts to tear it away can fail, and they can fail badly. One attempting the operation may well do more harm than good.

I struggle with this every once in awhile, particularly since my job and other aspects of my life bring me often into contact with young adults--many of whom have and are about to act on the same illusions I once had and once acted upon. And I don't have any great ideas about how to handle such situations, but here is a proposal for three rules of thumb. I truly welcome additional suggestions:

1.) Do your best to know your own motives. In these situations, I know mine are often mixed. The thing about which I am disillusioned, after all, is something or someone who has hurt me. That means that I might be making a little speech to myself about looking out for this young person's good, when in fact I want the pathetic revenge that comes from trash-talking a perceived enemy. If that's the dominant feeling, everything else I'm trying to do is suspect. Good advice, it seems to me, is more likely to come from a soul at peace with itself.

2.) In addition to suspecting your motives, suspect your experience at both the widest and narrowest margins. Your disillusionment about something as broad as, say, marriage, is unlikely to provide good guidance to anyone in a particular situation that does not resemble yours in numerous respects. (In other words, it's probably silly to be disillusioned about something this broad.) Likewise, your disillusionment about a single person may really be about your problems, or your problems in that relationship, rather than the other person's. (Remember this is a rule of thumb; I do not mean this to apply to anyone's disillusionment with any genuine abuser or other social monster.) Disillusionment about cliques of people, or institutions of various sizes, on the other hand, may well be instructive.

3.) If you really know that the "illusioned" person cannot hear you, or if this is really the kind of lesson one must learn for oneself, it is probably best to curtail the attempt. I think we probably know this more often than we like to admit, because we like to believe that we have more power over people than we do. But if you just met someone, and she has stars in her eyes over some institution that is woven into the fabric of her life, chances are that you cannot help. And if you know that the person you're advising has little respect for your opinion, chances are that you cannot help. And if you've offered the same caution before, and it has fallen on deaf ears, chances are . . . .

But it is difficult. Because at least sometimes, one really wants to help.

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