My friends tend to a few views of President Obama and the Democrats at the end of Year One. They seem different, but actually, all are part of the Disappointment System, my new name for the combination plate of hurt and response which has become our national dish. As is so often the case, what we are as political animals in the wide world is largely due to what we eat in the little world of relationship and emotion.
Right now, the political buffet is piled high. There’s a heaping portion of cynical gloating: See, the gloaters say, I didn’t get my hopes up, I didn’t fall for all that magical thinking about Obama as messiah, and guess what? I was right! There are full platters of bitter disappointment: He had us on his side from the get-go, the bitter ones say, and instead of standing tall for progressive values, he’s compromised everything away. And there is a veritable smorgasbord of Measured Response: Better on Haiti than Bush on New Orleans, better on health than nothing, too bad about Afghanistan but look at the pressure, and let’s be realistic, I mean, it’s the system, so what can you expect?
The cynics are pre-disappointed, having decided at some point to insulate themselves against further pain by never allowing their hopes to rise. The cynics’ remedy doesn’t work, of course: the result is a constant, dull ache, an addictive pain that makes up in duration whatever it might lack in intensity. The bitter ones have hit their pain threshold, deciding that opening to their hopes has gone far enough. But there’s a cost to pay too: the cocktail you get by stirring regret into disappointment delivers a hangover likely to endure for the rest of the President’s term.
The measured responders never really perceive how disappointment came to be their medium; they just live in it, like fish in the ocean. By allowing themselves less imagination, they feel less pain, of course. But unfortunately, also less of everything that transcends the limitations of the moment: as it has been, so it shall be.
I have been working lately with my own personal Disappointment System. I’ve had a lifetime of training in shrinking not only my expectations, not only my hopes, but shrinking even my sense of the possible to fit my disappointments. It’s not so easy to face one’s own limitations, but this one has become pretty undeniable: I have a strongly engrained habit—in psychological terms, a defense—of crafting a mental picture of the possible that corroborates my wish to avoid further disappointment.
You know how this goes. Once initialized, it permeates experience. Hell, it permeates every series on TV. Your parents make light of your problems at school, they fail to perceive who you really are, or if they see you, they don’t like what they see; you learn not to show yourself. Your friend is busy or distracted, every encounter is cut short; you learn not to ask for much and to impersonate satisfaction with what you get. Social scientists say the pattern is epidemic in private life these days: through fatigue, anxiety or outright terror, couples reach a point where intimacy ends, accommodating to a companionate grayness rather than risking desire.
I’ve been living a single life for the first time in decades. One of its most remarkable features is how little human touch my life now entails. I kvetched about it to a few of my oldest, closest friends, and each one said, “I’ll hold you.” I thought it was sweet, but I never took them up on it. Why not? My mind crafted reasons: So-and-so doesn’t really mean that, it would be awkward, if I seem needy, people won’t love me, So-and-so is busy with others’ needs, what entitles me to want this, much better to suck it up…. It’s got to be the Disappointment System, right? I’ve been hurt in a deep, old place, and it’s been more bearable for me to accommodate to a kind of isolation than to risk showing the love and need I feel. (Whew! That example was really personal, wasn’t it? I feel like deleting it, but I’m going to try to practice what I preach and resist the impulse.)
During the presidential campaign, I was excited by Obama’s candidacy. My excitement turned on the personal qualities I perceived through cracks in the persona-machine that engulfs—perhaps creates—candidates in our cash-driven electoral system. I was excited by his intelligence, his ability to translate complex issues into comprehensible stories, his ability to convey understanding and compassion. I thought that the complexities of his own identity and personal story fit the times, foreshadowing new possibilities.
I still think all these things, but now I also perceive that he is a man of many pains and therefore many defenses, which is too bad for the rest of us. The Disappointment System has just as much of a grip on him as on me or so many others. It’s all clothed in the language of the measured responders. He speaks of compromise and bipartisanship even when his putative partners behave more like schoolyard bullies. But it’s the Disappointment System at work: President Obama keeps choosing the safety of asking for less over the risk of trying for what we really need.
Sometimes all the headlines tell the same story. The five members who voted for today’s Supreme Court decision allowing corporate spending to dominate political campaigns acted on a common fantasy about freedom of expression (that corporations are persons whose access to advertising should be equated with individuals’ access to free speech). After a lifetime in the corporate “marketplace of ideas,” in which the high-volume drone of dollar-driven speech drowns out much of what really matters, the Disappointment System leads us to accommodate to the surreal notion of corporate personhood. We even start inventing reasons why it’s fair that way.
When I come to a still point and let myself feel the world spinning, the remarkable quality of this moment emerges. Some students of technology and time have observed something that seems very true to me: the pace of events is accelerating, which can’t go on forever. Something’s gotta give. On the mundane plane, it is remarkable how much busier and more productive people are. These days, thinking, typing, formatting and pressing a few buttons publishes my work. But if I compare my current output today with forty years ago, it’s not just the difference in technology that accounts for the exponential leap. It’s true that it took much more time to make notes on a yellow pad and type them up, dealing with whiteout and carbon paper, mailing them off by post and waiting for all the components of offset printing to accomplish their jobs. But there’s also a vast difference in my own expectations, in what I wish to express, in how I choose to spend my time, in how much output satisfies me. While those considerations are influenced by technology, they are not overdetermined by it. There’s an urgency to our activity that hints at the intensity of need being masked by the Disappointment System.
The exponential progression of technology that scientists like Ray Kurzweil talk about suggests some point of transition (or more gloomy, some end-point) to come (here’s an interesting video from two years ago in which Kurzweil explains his theory about what is to come). But even considering just human events, separate from our own creations, it seems so clear that we are on the coastline between worlds. Everyone knows the outlines of the dystopia that occupies one side of this liminal space: we can see it in the movies, in video games, in other fictions, in TV footage of Haiti. If we linger here, we crash and burn. On the other side of our social imaginations, the opposite possibility unfolds. We use our big brains to break with self-limiting ideas of how things are accomplished, to release what no longer serves, to value deep truths about human possibility that cannot be contained by the institutions as they are now conceived, and to encompass reconceived social institutions.
Whether we can cross over from dystopia to renewal depends on our self-liberation from the Disappointment System. If we are too imprinted—too trapped by defenses conditioned on our past disappointments—to risk the ridicule, rejection, or injury with which the colonized mind responds to real freedom of thought, we won’t try. And if we don’t try, the story’s end is already written.
Sometimes when I grasp the limitations I have placed on myself through the Disappointment System, I want to grab myself by the shoulders and give myself a good, hard shake. Sometimes I want to do the same thing to the body politic, or maybe just the President. My cynical friends think he’s bought and paid for, an artifact of the corporate politics that will now accelerate more rapidly, thanks to the Supreme Court’s participation in the Disappointment System. My bitter friends think he’s a fake. My friends the measured responders think a companionate presidency is as inevitable as a marriage drained of erotic life. And what I think is this: that our potential to exit from the Disappointment System, singly and collectively, is absolutely real. And if we don’t actualize it, it’s no one’s fault but our own.
As I’m writing, I’ve got the 1971 Funkadelic version of “Maggot Brain” on repeat on my iPod. Funkadelic did not partake of the Disappointment System. It stood right up in the Disappointment System’s face and said “Deal with me.” May life imitate art.