Bless the great disappointment

Naked Questions/11 - Bitter truth is better than sweet self-deceit

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 17/01/2016

Logo Qohelet"At times God
kills lovers
Because he doesn't want
to be surpassed
in love”.

Alda Merini, A volte Dio (At times God; rough translation of the Italian original)

Truth is a basic need of the human heart. We have constructed theories of behaviour based on "pyramids of needs", where moral goods are found on the third and fourth "levels", treated as luxury goods that we can afford only after having got enough to eat and drink. As if beauty, love and truth were not essential goods, as if sleep was more necessary than respect, as if sex meant more than relationships or safety was more than care.

This way we are forgetting that history tells us about many wealthy people who have been left to die for the lack of a good answer to the question "why do I have to get up this morning?", and many others who have endured long years in conditions of extreme hunger and thirst - only because there was someone waiting for them at home. There are many forms this need for truth can take whether it is about ourselves, the heart and the actions of those we love or beliefs and ideals that have built and nurtured our existence. One of these is the vital urgency that arrives suddenly one day to see if we have ended up in a great self-illusion, in a "bubble of vanitas" which surrounds us, our loved ones, God and all our certainties. On that day everything else becomes relative, this truth becomes an absolute, and the best of our energies are spent to understand if we are free and true as we thought or fallen into a trap without realizing it.

This experience is neither universal nor necessary, but it is very common among those who made radical choices in their youth, believed in a great promise, followed a voice calling them to a new land. In these people, whether religious or lay, one day, for various reasons, you can insinuate doubt that the reality of yesterday was just a wind or a dream. If we ​​asked little from life, this time does not come, but it almost always presents itself when we asked a lot from it during the most beautiful years of great enthusiasm. Sometimes the process of being tested by doubt makes us realise that the great self-deceit was only an appearance, and what seemed to be a ghost was only the shadow of a true presence. At other times, however, we end up realising that we have really been fooled for a long time, about a lot of important things.

The Book of Ecclesiastes has already told us, and continues to repeat, that this second call for the search is not at all a failure, but it is actually a very good thing. That's because a real life of disillusion is better than a life lived in illusion, bitter truth is better than sweet self-deceit. Qoheleth's wisdom is essentially a gift given to us to help free ourselves from illusions. If truth has a value in itself, then dashed illusions should be preferred to illusional certainties. Qoheleth tells us that these times of transformation of the "days of vanity" into disappointment, these instances of authentic awakening are true "blessings", among the greatest under the sun. He also knows that the acceptance of the "vanitas" and the admission to self-deceit generated by the need for illusions are especially long and difficult operations.

So, with his cyclic method, he repeated the same messages multiple times, always with new tones: “For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.” (Qoheleth 6,8; 7,15). Creative and poetic repetition is part of his style. Knowing how to stand still during the repetition of great and torch bearing words requires great gentleness and strength of the heart and mind, practices that our time has not only forgotten, but fights hard in the name of efficiency and speed: “the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (7,8).

The "vanitas" type of illusions are interwoven with the most beautiful truths of our life. They are nested in our talents, like the much weed growing in the midst of the first good wheat. They mature together with us, having worn masks put on the faces of the best people in our lives, nourished of our most beautiful charismas. Therefore, it takes time and perseverance to free ourselves from illusions, if we want to get to the end of the process and not stop too soon, satisfied by the first and simplest cuts carved, unable to break away from our illusional past because we are too fond of those old playthings: “Say not, »Why were the former days better than these?« For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” (7,10)

The only possible victory over "vanitas" in this land is to be able to die and rise again while one is still alive. At least once. This death-and-resurrection can come in many ways, some are bright, others dark. Sometimes it takes the form of overcoming a serious illness - every great recovery is a battle in a nightly ford, from which we leave injured, blessed with a new name and a new, resurrected body with the stigmata of suffering. At some other times, especially regarding those who have already had a first experience of death and resurrection (and maybe having already "risen" do not plan to "die" anymore), it takes the form of the "great disappointment". What begins to die there is not a physical or moral illness to fight, but all had seemed to be beautiful, good and true in the past life.

It is the son of the promise who sets off with us, early in the morning towards Mount Moriah.

It is only rarely that these fights with the great disappointment have a good outcome. It is not easy to win in this kind of struggle, because the enemy is not outside: we have to fight with the best part of our own selves. It is relatively easy to arrive at the threshold of disappointment – and much more difficult and rare to cross it. One senses the hardness, the uncertainty and the loss of the post-illusion life, does not face fear of the unknown and the pain of disappointment, and so tends to easily regress to adolescence. To avoid the death of the past one gives up a new future (and a good present).

And so one ends up creating a conflict between the need for truth and the cost of the process of liberation from illusions. At first one stays inside the gap between illusion and delusion. But this state of tension does not last long. So, sooner or later, we have to decide whether to make the jump to try and reach the cliff beyond the gap (at the risk of falling and subsiding), or turn our back and start on the way back to the old illusions. If we return home, for a short time we still feel discomfort and pain for the lack of truth, but then almost always begin to attribute the status of truth to the old and new illusions.

The need for truth is usually active and it is stronger, it prevails, but here it operates in a twisted way. "Illusions turn into truth". We adapt to illusion, and to survive we begin, almost always unconsciously, to call unhappiness happiness, illusion truth. And so the trap becomes perfect. At other times, we do not accept disappointment and become cynical and angry with life, with the past and with fellow-accomplices of the days of our "vain life". It's but another trap, no less deep and serious.

On rare occasions, however, the operation is successful, and one day we wake up to find ourselves resurrected – humanity managed to intuit something of the unique resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, because many men and women had already risen thousands of times, and continue to do so. In the first phase of this authentic new life great loneliness is experienced. The age of illusion had been a collective, social and community experience. After crossing through the great disappointment, however, we all find ourselves alone, and every one of us has a sure feeling of being the only living being awake in a world of those who are asleep.

If you can overcome this special type of moral suffering (which is not to be taken for granted), another phase begins. You realise that in fact you are not alone, and you begin to know, one by one, others who live the same experience under the same sky. A new social life starts then, which is all different from the one lived earlier. New friends are found in unexpected and improbable places, but sometimes in the usual places, too. They are discovered in books, art, poetry, and almost always among the poor.

Finally, if the journey continues, the desire is born to go and meet the many who are still inside the bubble of illusion, to "wake them up", free them and pull them out of their cave of shadows, to have them see true reality. And we usually get very committed to this mission. Only to understand, one day, that a new idolatry has crept into this missionary spirit in which we ourselves were the idol.

One finds oneself on the edge of the gap between the rocks again, and has to decide whether to stay in this illusion-idolatry or attempt a new leap, risking a new death, and hope again in a new resurrection. Once you begin to resurrect you should not stop anymore. And, perhaps, in the end we realize, crying different tears, that the resurrected truth was already present in that first "vanitas" which we fought so hard until we killed it. And so the butterfly thanks the caterpillar, the pearl the oyster, the resurrected the abandoned. But, at the beginning and during the process, we won't be able to know this: «Better is the end of a thing than its beginning» (7,8).

Qoheleth has probably known and experienced something similar. If we know how to read between his lines, we can clearly see the long stretch of the road that goes from illusion to disappointment, and glimpse a few flashes of resurrection. If Qoheleth hadn't risen again after "vanitas" he could not give us the gift of his words. His book would not have been included in the Bible. We would not have been touched inside our disappointments, taken by the hand and accompanied in our own resurrections.

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