Dennis Bradford

389 Posts



Is there an optimific way to deal with disappointment?  Perhaps.

Let’s consider a concrete example. This past summer was the hottest one on record and throughout it I had been anticipating going camping up north this fall. I was scheduled to drive several hours north of Toronto last Tuesday.

I was fully prepared to leave. I had had my car serviced and it was running in tip top condition. The same with my outboard engine. I had the boat trailer hitched to the car. All my camping equipment and clothes were checked, packed, and loaded into the car. I had prepared and frozen entrees to eat. All I had to do was to load the cooler Tuesday morning, put the cooler into the car, and drive happily away.

Instead, disappointment! Unexpectedly I began to experience considerable pain in my left shoulder whenever I raised my elbow even a few inches from my side. Had I gone, I would have been unable to unload the car, launch the boat, load everything into the boat, or set up camp. I was physically unable to camp.

I still have no idea what caused the shoulder pain that lasted for days. It eventually disappeared.

Who knows? Maybe I’ve already been on my last camping trip – and that’s not just because I’m old.  Nobody’s future is guaranteed.

In terms of disappointment intensity, my not being able to go on vacation last week was more annoying than severe. It doesn’t rank up there with the death of a child, parent, or other loved one – or with losing a good job or having your house burn down or getting dumped by a beloved lover or any number of other familiar kinds of disasters.

In fact, I’m grateful that I’m even in a position sometimes to go on such wonderful vacations! That’s characteristic of the luck I’ve enjoyed throughout my life.

Pick your own favorite example of a disappointment you have suffered. What caused it?  How did you deal with it?  Could you have dealt with it more effectively?

Please consider the possibility that every disappointment comes from the same pattern, namely, that there’s a gap between reality and the way you think reality should be. In other words, since we have the ability to control what we think about, we cause our own disappointments.

Nonsentient entities never suffer from disappointment. It’s not at all clear that any nonhuman animals suffer from them either.  Only humans suffer from disappointment.

Isn’t that strange? Why do we do that to ourselves?

It’s part of our human condition. There’s nothing at all abnormal about such suffering. Instances of it occur millions of times daily with deadening regularity.

Our ability to control events is very limited. The hot year we are experiencing is a good example. So far, our ability to control global warming and, so, its ill effects has been nearly nonexistent. My ability to control my shoulder pain was also nearly nonexistent. I had the ability to alleviate the pain with pain-reducing drugs and, at least in theory, ice and heat and rest and so on, but, really, it required time to let my body heal itself. (I have had similar pains before and, even after lots of blood tests, my internist also does not understand what is causing them.)

Our ability to control thoughts may also be very limited, but, fortunately, it can readily be improved by developing the relaxation response using meditation as well as by deliberate revision.

In fact, this is exactly what Madhyamika philosophers in the eastern philosophic tradition and Stoic philosophers in the western philosophic tradition advocate doing.

There are two critical analogies that some philosophers from both traditions suggest. One is more extreme than the other. An illusion is a case in which some entity is misperceived such as when someone who is red-green colorblind fails to see a stop light as red. A delusion is a case in which a nonentity is perceived such as when you have a dream that is a nightmare that a large green blob is in your bedroom trying to ingest you.  So illusions are less extreme than delusions.

Some philosophers think that the world is like an illusion and other philosophers think that the world is like a delusion. Since everyone agrees that, whatever the world is like, we are generally able to function and it’s difficult to understand how that is possible if the world is like a grand delusion, let’s here set aside the more extreme suggestion.

Notice that being colorblind can affect the quality of life and even survival both positively and negatively. In war, for example, colorblind soldiers are useful in detecting camouflage. Unfortunately, they miss enjoying the sight of, say, colored flowers. In principle, there might be a way to correct the condition if we wanted to do so by tinkering with a patient’s genetics.

Similarly, might there be a way to correct our experiencing disappointment if the world is like an illusion?

Yes. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that doing so involves a radical revision in our understanding. If overcoming disappointment interests you, let me here just suggest how to begin doing that.

It’s natural to think that the problem came because of a gap between my desire to go camping and the fact that I was unable to go camping. My thought failed to match up with reality.

Such a view suggests that my thoughts (judgments, beliefs) and reality (entities, facts) are in different domains, that my thoughts are here and reality is over there. When my thoughts match or are identical with facts, there’s no problem; problems occur only when thoughts and facts don’t match or fail to be identical.

Because I wanted to go camping last week, that fact made the thought “I want to go camping” true then. Because I was unable to go camping last week, that fact made the thought “I am not able to go camping” true then.

If so, is reality composed of both positive facts (such as my desire to go camping) and negative facts (such as my inability to go camping)? Are negative facts real? Are positive facts real? Whether positive or negative, how are facts even singled out? (Could facts be real if they weren’t even singled out? Is reality somehow mind-dependent?)

Commonsense has no answer to fundamental questions like these; commonsense has no theory of truth or reality or of our apprehension of reality. [Uh oh! Most people hate it when they have to begin thinking seriously!]

Here’s a way out that Nagarjuna suggests: what if both facts and thoughts are empty? What if, whenever we suffer from thinking there’s a gap between the way we think the world should be and the way we take the world to be, we realized that emptiness is a device for correcting that illusion?

It’s not that the world is somehow out there and we are stuck in here bound by language and concepts with no way to break our bonds. It’s not that [external] facts sometimes justify and sometimes fail to justify [internal] thoughts. It’s not that there ever occurs a correspondence between our thoughts and the facts.

It’s that, because we are sickened by clinging to the objects of our desires, we fail to realize their emptiness. We miss the emptiness of thoughts and facts; we miss the emptiness of all things.

There’s not some ultimate purpose to their being empty. They are just empty.

It’s a mistake to believe in emptiness, to attach to the view that all things are empty. According to what the Buddha supposedly said, that is incurable [See p. 58 in the book referenced below]. It’s just attachment to a view.

What’s the suggestion? It’s to realize emptiness by nonrealization! That is the way to freedom from clinging and antipathy. It’s the nonconceptual, direct realization of emptiness, which requires letting go of language and concepts.

There’s much more to be said about this, of course, but it’s sufficient to make the suggestion that it may be a form of life (as Wittgenstein might have put it) that dissolves disappointment and generates universal compassion.


As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.

Recommended post: Dissolving Negative Emotions

RECOMMENDED READING: C. W. Huntington, Jr., and Geshe Namgyal Wangchen’s The Emptiness of Emptiness.


1 thought on “Disappointment

  1. SamVega

    Excellent post – thank you. Readers might be interested in a Theravadan Buddhist take on the same subject:


    05/10/2012 at 4:51 pm

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