The difficult art of dealing with disappointment philosophically

Nobody can avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. JOANNE SAVAGE considers the wisdom of the stoics and other philosophers when our hopes are dashed

By Joanne Savage
Friday, 16th July 2021, 8:00 am
England fans steeped in immense disappointment after Italy emerges victorious
England fans steeped in immense disappointment after Italy emerges victorious

So Italy beat England 3-2 in a penalty shoot out at the Euro finals and a nation was left grappling with that most recurrent of life’s realities: disappointment.

Football fans wept; hope and expectation was cruelly dashed; the euphoria ended in hangovers and defeat.

Well, such is life.

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Alain de Botton believes maturity is learning to be comfortable with and unsurprised by disappointment and pain

Disappointments are inescapable, whether in love or in your career, it is almost certain, unless you are some kind of supernatural deity who can alter reality to always exceed your expectations and optimism, life will give you lemons at several junctures, and you either make lemonade and carry on regardless or succumb to despair that leads nowhere.

The ancient philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius were proponents of stoicism, basically a way of living whereby you accept what happens with unflagging endurance, accepting the bitterness of life that is inextricably bound up with its manifold joys and refusing to be defeated by the unalterable truth that life is basically tragedy, albeit imbued with beauty and levity.

The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer believed that pessimism was really the only way to approach life that would not lead to disappointment, recognising, as he gloomily did, that the pendulum of existence swings inexorably between pain and boredom.

In fact, in his Studies on Pessimism, Schopenhauer argued convincingly that the bitterness entailed in existence is not only right, but necessary, because if everything were ideal and we were all granted the fulfilment of our desires without any impediment, the results would be infinitely more catastrophic than the status quo wherein we all struggle against difficulties and hardship in order to fight for contentment and equilibrium.

He famously observed: “If the world were a paradise of luxury and ease, a land flowing with milk and honey, where every Jack obtained his Jill at once and without any difficulty, men would either die of boredom or hang themselves; or there would be wars, massacres, and murders; so that in the end mankind would inflict more suffering on itself than it has now to accept at the hands of Nature.”

One of today’s most prominent philosophers, Alain de Botton, situates himself with Schopenhauer on the issue of disappointment, believing that the primary cause of western dissatisfaction is our over recourse to optimism, the heightened and unrealistic expectations we live in pursuit of, thereby setting ourselves up for grand disappointments because in our idealised world view and in our conflated sense of what we are entitled to, we are rarely if ever likely to have our overly optimistic expectations met.

For de Botton, one of the recurrent themes he returns to is disappointment in love and this is something most of us can relate to. In a recent essay in the New York Times he boldly headlined his article ‘Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person’ - in the sense that there is no such thing as an ideal match, the first flush of romantic love does not endure, and in truly coming to know and understand another person over years and decades of connection, you are absolutely going to be disappointed if you have placed your beloved on a plinth, because they are mortal, as flawed as you are, and we live in a flawed world of hardship and misfortune wherein pleasure and pain are intimately entwined. True love is hard work, and disappointment is part and parcel of intimacy as much as fulfilment, laughter, joy and exhilaration are.

We do not need to think very hard about the manifold ways in which we can be disappointed: a party gets cancelled; a friend betrays you; you get stood up on a date; someone you love loses their cancer battle; you are overlooked for a promotion; a holiday you had looked forward to turns into a season in hell; an expensive bottle of claret ends up spilled all over the table cloth when accidentally knocked over; your lottery ticket doesn’t bear fruit; you miss the bus; you didn’t get the high score on that exam you’d been prepping for; someone you thought of as a life-long friend cuts you off. Life is unfair, and disappointment is part of its very fabric; in fact, without it, we would not appreciate it when things do go to plan, because it is only in the context of having experienced disappointment and failure that we can truly appreciate success and all the bounty that life has to offer.

But, in more pragmatic terms, how should we hold fast in the face of life’s disappointments and continue standing straight with our shoulders back?

Should we expect nothing and banish optimism, for fear of disappointment? Well, that seems liable only to lead us into the leaden fug of a depression where there is nothing to strive for. A pessimistic mindset is likely to leave us gloomy and inert - if we feel the outcome for us will always be a negative one, why persevere, why try at all? At the same time, we must be realistic about our expectations if we are not to spend our days lamenting the fact that we are not a Greek goddess of a genius capable of solving Fermat’s Last Theorem and destined for worldwide fame and impossible wealth.

For de Botton, “maturity really means: being very unsurprised by, and calm around, pain and disappointment”. This seems about right. Nothing in life is certain to go our way (the only certainties are death and taxes) so accepting this is part and parcel of becoming responsible adults. Disappointments are certain, and maturity is about accepting their inevitability and learning how to hold up against the ballast.

As Eliza Tabor eloquently put it: “Disappointment to a noble soul is what cold water is to burning metal; it strengthens, tempers, intensifies, but never destroys it.”

So there are healthy and helpful ways of dealing with disappointment that can actually transmute it into an opportunity for personal growth and increased resilience.

According to Henrik Edber, author of The Positivity Blog, there are various helpful steps to dealing with disappointment that we might do well to consider.

First up is accepting how you feel. Disappointment sucks. It hurts. And you don’t have to hide it under a false smile. Allow yourself to feel as you do, accept it and let it wash over you like a wave. Everything changes and this too shall pass. Denying your disappointment and burying the emotions related to it will only cause them to be internalised and fester, causing you bigger problems when you are finally forced to confront the reality of your emotions. Acceptance, as the ancient stoics were aware in the face of life’s slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, is fundamental.

Secondly, just because you were disappointed this time, need not mean you will be disappointed next time. Hope springs eternal. You might lose umpteen rounds of golf and then eventually find yourself victorious. It’s persisting in the teeth of disappointment and failure that really matters.

As the Irish Nobel Laureate and playwright Samuel Beckett put it: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” When disappointment bites, keep going, because there is always the chance that next time will produce a different outcome. If you cannot succeed, aim, then, in the Beckettian philosophy, to simply fail better and fail better yet again until you get where you want to be.

The next thing is about trying to learn from your disappointments rather than getting lost in the imbroglio of negativity. Change tack, evolve, grow and ultimately endure and overcome.

So lower your expectations, persevere, vent, buck up, and crucially do not give up the good fight. Disappointments are ahead, but it’s how you respond to them that truly matters.

Now where are those darned lemons? This is going to be the elixir of lemonades.