Inconsolable Longings, Fear of Disappointment ~ BitterSweetLife

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Inconsolable Longings, Fear of Disappointment

Spiritual Expectation

In an earlier post I suggested that it is often more rewarding to look forward to something than to actually get it. Now, building on that, I’m thinking that anticipation, or keen expectation, may have value in its own right—never mind that it often fails to pan out.

For example, there may be a joy that comes from looking forward to a game of 3-on-3, even when the actual game doesn’t transpire as planned. And it might be a good idea to savor the expectation for all it’s worth, even if it “dead ends.”

Why? Because our best desires, even (or especially) when they fail to be realized, can create a bittersweet thread of longing that leads us heavenward. As C.S. Lewis recognized, it was the piercing inadequacy of his greatest desires that led him to discover a Sehnsucht longing for heaven—achingly sweet, but better than all manner of blasé, sure-fire pleasures.

I definitely agree with Lewis here. But I’m almost afraid to apply this discovery to my life.

Where my hopes are concerned, I am sometimes reluctant to indulge in anticipation with abandon because of the fear of what may really happen. I’ve been burned too many times to get pumped up over something as unreliable as ________, I think. Fill in the blank. Be it a jumpshot, a significant other, a vacation, a book, even a first-rate college hoops team, they’ll all let you down.

Nothing material can consistently bear the weight of expectation, but some of us have found a way to defray the all-too-predictable disappointment: Lower your expectations to a manageable level.

  • Tomorrow when I play basketball, I may sprain my ankle—or it might rain. But hey, it’s all good.
  • I’ve heard this author is excellent. Once I get past his unoriginal plot and stock character, there will probably be a few good paragraphs.
  • It’s good to be back in school. Of course, this isn’t Oxford, so I won’t be holding my breath, waiting for Ravi Zacharias to walk up to the white board.
However, if C.S. Lewis is right, my strategy is self-defeating. The tenuous threads of my expectation have a value that transcends their immediate success. Every failed joy on earth points to joy's ultimate fulfillment elsewhere.
But wait, my experienced self says. Look how I was so happy, thought I had the world at my fingertips, and then I took another step and everything fell apart. It hurt.

True, my hopeful self says. There’s no denying the spectacular nature of that disaster. But maybe the disappointment was the point. And the longing you felt to be extremely happy was good, even though it wasn’t realized.

Well, maybe.

My longing was a thread that led somewhere. I lost sight of its destination when disillusionment hid it from view. “Inconsolable longings,” says Lewis, are tied to something invisible but very real.

So where expectations are concerned, maybe I should climb in for the thrill ride, never mind that the experience itself may fall short. One day, the desires that my present life reflect dimly will materialize, fully formed. For now, these keen desires for approaching good will remind me that there’s a heaven and that I haven't reached it yet.


Related post: Nagging Happiness - The Inadequacy of Ordinary Looking-Forward-To

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Camille said...

Ariel... beautiful post. So much of life is contained in the quality of longing we aspire to. To really open your heart to the universe, to God, to the great, wild, unpredictable gamble, to simply being alive-- that is the challenge. Thanks for sharing. Cheers to the wicked joy of anticipation.

Will Robison said...

If you get good enough at down-playing your expectations, you can skip them altogether. You will go from, I'm probably going to sprain my ankle playing basketball, to, Why bother playing basketball when I'm only going to sprain my ankle? Our expectations can become so low that we don't do anything at all and our lives manage to match our expectations. Thank you for the post. I found it illuminating in a very painful way.

Captain Mom said...

There's an singer/songwriter/story teller extraordinaire we love. If you haven't checked out David Wilcox, you're in for a treat. He has a song called Someday Soon.

from Big Horizons, 1991

"Someday Soon made a promise I will follow
Someday Soon is why I try
Someday Soon told me: "Take this cup of
Empty hope up to the well that's dry
Where there's just enough of Someday Soon to satisfy"

You have done all the adventures I have dreamed of
And I have run a different path but just as fine
Ah, but both of us have missed, we haven't closed
The distance on the destination peace of mind

For it seems as if it's always half together
There is no happy-ever-after magic wand
The lightning pulls the thunder, the distance
Pulls the wonder that calls us farther on


Now if heaven is perfection
I'll get my deepest questions answered
Like a child tears into presents
To a Christmas tune

But in that big hall, let there be a
Bright red ribbon that stays
Wrapped around the mystery
Of Someday Soon"

He is a believer.

Ariel said...

"So much of life is contained in the quality of longing we aspire to...the great, wild, unpredictable gamble, to simply being alive."

I like that thought, Camille. Poetic as usual. It seems true that we are creatures who are defined by what we long for.

Will, continuing on your point: perhaps this is why some people (some of us, some of the time) can feel entirely justified just sitting at home doing nothing. A hyper-"realistic" approach to life can lead to a total lack of nerve.

Thanks for the Wilcox hint, Captain. I think you're the second person who has mentioned him to me, so I'd better head over to right now and take a listen...


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife