I should like to be an instrument of praise, to keep before my heart always the imponderable and intricate beauty of all that is. So I am impatient when we fail to rouse ourselves to amazement at the universe so overwhelmingly and incomprehensibly wondrous. Peggy Lee’s delivery of a heavy-footed song dismays me: Watch our whole world go up in flames. Break out the booze and have a ball. ohmf-pa, ohmf-pa, ohmf-pa: Is that all there is?
The origin of disappointment may be enigmatic, yet disappointment can follow ready pathways to disillusion and destructiveness. Instead of concupiscence or pride as the index of original sin, consider disappointment. Before the first human beings were disappointed, there wasn’t a lot to tell. According to the book of Genesis, God set Adam and Eve in a garden, made lush by rivers, full of beautiful trees and fruit-bearing plants. The human beings did not need clothes because the temperature was perfect. There were other creatures, too, with their own curiosities and contentment. They also ate fruits and plants. Even God walked in the garden in the evening among his creatures. It was all that beautiful. The humans had no restrictions on them but one: They must not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Otherwise, they could enjoy their happily everlasting lives among multitudes of wonderful creatures, all of them foraging peacefully together.
Theologians have pondered for centuries how to account for the choice to do the one thing forbidden. Let us review the situation: You and your loved ones have everything you need; you remember no time when it was otherwise; you look ahead to nothing else but contented, harmonious days together. What inspires the thought: Is that all there is? The scripture says the serpent introduced the idea of a life beyond contentment, a life of wisdom or a life of gods. But, that still does not explain why two naked humans, who enjoy everlasting happiness, should take up the theme: Is that all there is?
Disappointment has an imponderable quality, sometimes emerging vividly under conditions that one might think should allow for perfect happiness or more-than-enough happiness. Once they eat the forbidden fruit, neither the woman nor the man can explain what moved them. The man says the woman gave the fruit to him, and the woman says the serpent said it would enlarge their lives in some way. But neither explains why they were tempted to consume disappointment with what was given. Is that all there is? Afterwards, they are out of tune, with God and each other, and they are ashamed. Whatever fleet vision they had in the garden of something else beyond, once they found themselves beyond Eden, the lives they would have lived in the garden haunt them. After Eden, they will toil. They will labor. They will kill other creatures and dominate one over the other. Their children will fight. They will migrate. They will feel desolation. In the end, each will die. Their descendants will elaborate a full palette of disappointment: envy, jealousy, resentment, vengeance, and isolation. They will cast sheaves of violence on the Earth. Meanwhile, their descendants will also be prone to nostalgic and utopian dreams, fantasies of all that was before or will be again.
Yet they will not recollect what made them think, in Eden, that they wanted something else.
Disappointment often works like that. We are not good at evaluating or cherishing the conditions of our happiness, or aligning our lives with those conditions. Disappointment can emerge in conditions of happiness as a heavy-footed dance—ohmf-pa, ohmf-pa, ohmf-pa—that exhausts or ruins. Worse, disappointment causes us to radically underestimate how difficult or even impossible those sustaining conditions were to create or make or reproduce. To want vaguely something else often means to choose less than all that is by way of careless consumption. Perhaps such disappointment has more the character of a lapse than a choice.
In that lapse, we try to cure ourselves of disappointment. We try to cure ourselves by disillusion with the conditions of our lives, the conditions of happiness and love, which go on sustaining us beneath our disappointment. Is that all there is to a fire? We try to cure ourselves with the confidence that we are now disillusioned, and our disillusioned confidence allows us to see someone or others in a newly degraded light. Is that all there is to love? We become careless about those others, or imagine that they could be readily improved or replaced. We try to cure ourselves by resentment. Among our disillusioned convictions is the confidence that something more is owed. So far as I can tell, there is no limit on that “more,” as we witness whole species driven to extinction with a shrug. Is that all there is to a circus?
Among privileged people, disappointment fosters disillusion and destructiveness. Disappointment creates the near hallucinatory image of life as it should have been. At the same time, the disappointed care less about what happens next in the life we live now or the others with whom we live it. The conditions of happiness and love are degraded and restraints collapse. Disappointment withdraws moral imagination from the lives we live, to retreat into the lives that were wanted—now envisioned with ease in the frictionless, insubstantial register of fantasy—while the lives we live become ponderous with all their densities and contingencies. Ohmf-pa, ohmf-pa, ohmf-pa: Is that all there is?
I cherish Adam Phillips’s reading of King Lear for inspiring these reflections. At the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, the aging king envisions a life in which he will enjoy the rewards of being king without all the work. He anticipates that he will arrange this happy retirement with his daughters; he anticipates that they will share his happy vision. Privately, Lear envisions living in the home of his sweetest daughter Cordelia, with whichever husband she chooses; he anticipates the grandbabies he will enjoy. It is all so clear to him.
This envisioned life is well within the king’s grasp. Anticipating his golden years, King Lear is magnanimous; he condescends to be clever. He summons his daughters with their husbands and suitors. Since the daughters and his properties are a package deal, everyone summoned has an interest. Yet, though the meeting is about real estate, King Lear invites a symposium on love. He asks his daughters to make speeches about their love for him. Specifically, Lear invites his daughters to submit competitive bids, implying that a comparatively impressive speech will win a comparatively impressive share of the map.
Regan and Goneril grasp the assignment and prepare to monetize their affections. Goneril tells the king that she loves him above all else, and Regan says that she loves him alone. Between all and alone, poor Cordelia finds nothing to say. Moreover, Cordelia believes she knows the truth about love, namely, that love cannot be bought or sold. So, believing herself true, she says, “nothing.” Her father asks again; again, she says, nothing. She will say nothing to calculate her love.
Goneril and Regan’s speeches are admirable tributes, the sort that pragmatists make to narcissists. But Cordelia’s response is pure disappointment. If you ask your children to monetize their love for you, you may be a wee disappointed when they do. Perhaps King Lear had hoped that Cordelia would elevate the meeting. And let us stipulate that Cordelia knows something about love, yet, she also knows something about her father. He expected her to honor him truly, but for her to say “nothing” does not dignify honor or truth, at least not immediately. So Cordelia knows that she must disappoint her father. Cordelia has something to say about love, just nothing to say for property. Perhaps she herself is disappointed by the contest. Yet once she repeats her “nothing,” the king can no longer hear anything she has to say. Is that all there is?
Disappointed, King Lear is swiftly disillusioned. His disappointment reveals to him something about Cordelia that he had not seen before. Yet now he knows, with conviction, that she is hard, as he says, un-tender. With this new conviction, Lear faces the bare prospect of crawling to death in the care of craven opportunists. His happy royal vision has been demolished; his best daughter has become of little substance; let her truth be her only dowry. And facing this loss, the king becomes destructive. Disappointment precipitates an avalanche of catastrophe that ends, after many storms of violence later, with a broken father howling over the lifeless body of his child.
Is that how God felt too, when the two earthlings stood before him, vague and unrepentant? When the woman said, the serpent gave us the fruit, the serpent said it would make us like you, did God’s disappointment collapse on the world? Was there something else she might have said? Is that all there is?
When the future you wanted is disappointed, the past can sometimes become strangely disappointed too. The lives we live together with others are always full of anticipated futures, of the cycles and celebrations that we thought would continue to fold the past into the future and the future into the past. In severe disappointment, we may decide not to think about it anymore. Our disappointed lives collapse behind or on top of the lives we live, monotonously. This can increase the potential of destructiveness, when the purpose of remembrance is only to disappoint again. Peggy Lee’s song thumps along in its dance: ohmf-pa, ohmf-pa, ohmf-pa. Neither praise nor grief penetrates its monotony.
In the best course, we learn through disappointment how to envision what we love, and then how to align imagination and work with others to achieve that. When we do this, we experience tremendous satisfaction and love and the wonder of making lives within a world. But without that wisdom and alignment, we readily follow the pathways of disappointment—disillusion, degradation, and destructiveness.
The origin of disappointment may be enigmatic; the destructive pathways can be devastating. So, at this moment, it seems to me crucial that we do not lapse into any spoiled malaise.
Can we find some musical sound in the intervals between the lives we live together and their disappointed promise? I think it is possible to tune those intervals, at least retrospectively, so that they form the musical texture of our lives. So we might address disappointment, not with booze and dancing, but with composition, with a sense that contrapuntal progressions can develop tensions and anticipate endings, even those that may never resolve.
I should like to be an instrument of praise, with others, and to tune the intervals of disappointment in our many lives into the progressions of polyphony. However sad, long, or unresolved, let those intervals sound musically in us. Their degrees and developments, as Leonard Cohen sang—the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift—compose whatever hallelujah we can sing. In the best course, they compose the music of shared praise.