March 2017 – On Loss and Disappointment

A personal one for this month; closer, perhaps, to a blog entry than an essay, but I make no announcements here.

Recently I have been thinking a lot – too much, no doubt – about endings, especially of lives that seemed to be permanent. What seems to have ended in my own life is any sense of future progress. My late father, much loved and long mourned, had one failing: life was always waiting, just around the corner. It may well be a familiar theme to many readers from middle-class backgrounds: get through primary school, and all will be well; then just get O Levels, and all will be well; er, then just get A Levels, get a degree, get professional qualifications, get your first job, your first home, your partner, maybe children (not in my case), and get promotion or a better job, and then…. all will be well. Or at least, retire from the job you’ve come to hate, and then, get your bus pass and pension, and, finally, all will be well, except……how do you then avoid the deadly reaper, and if you clearly cannot, how then can all possibly be well?

Dad’s formulation will be so familiar to some as to be clichéd. Had I had children, I would probably have repeated much the same sort of mantra. Or maybe, I would have told my children, more realistically, that their lives will be full of problems, and one has to try to live through them; but that the chilliest winters are eventually followed by summers (although after that, there are more winters). More pessimistically, that life in this current society is and feels unfair, progress only ever temporary, and disappointment comes as standard. Be angry or at least discontented about it, resist it, but don’t blame me, or others, who did not make it that way!

What prompts me now is partly the seeming progressing loss of people, to whom I am close, whose lives are under threat. Already lost is the sense that their lives are unthreatened, although there is still hope. The loss of persons differs from the loss of relationships with persons, but the latter has already taken place. Blame and recriminations might apply, but for me there is the disappointment that I have discovered how little my friendship and care counts.

I am also in the process of finally parting company with causes and organisations to which I had devoted much commitment and effort over what are, in aggregate, a large number of years. I am prompted by a variety of motives, but much of this is the realisation that my commitment was rarely, if ever, appreciated. It may be unwise to expect positive appreciation of one’s efforts, but to be informed that one’s efforts are insufficient, or can easily be disregarded, is to see clearly the way to the exit doors.

I have been tempted to engage in a lengthy review of the late Ian Craib’s The Importance of Disappointment, and I might do so in a future essay; his work does merit detailed study. However, I will simply discuss two significant quotations. Craib, a sociologist who was also a practicing psychotherapist (and who died comparatively young), focused closely on grief and mourning. He asserted that
“I don’t think I have come across anything so intensely personal as grieving, and it often seems to me that the only attitude to adopt towards it is one of respect.” If he is right, then moves to minimise or dismiss processes of grieving are attempts to deny the most intense personal feelings, not to mitigate the damage that they can cause. I infer from this that grief must be handled to prevent total psychological collapse, but it cannot be removed or destroyed.

This can be extended from the death of living things (especially people) to add the death of meaning, of any sense of hope and feelings of progress. The loss of people, however close, may prompt feelings that all our efforts to secure some sort of development, of progress, are doomed to failure. Craib expressed this well:

“It is, I believe, not just our very powerful fear of our own eventual death which gives us trouble, but the way in which the loss of a loved one reminds us not just of every other loss, but of the inevitability of losing, of having already lost whatever we might want before we get it.”

Craib goes on from this to discuss bereavement therapy, but I prefer to focus on his “inevitability of losing” here, and to cover therapy in a later essay. Even if you fulfil your aspirations, and seem to achieve your ambitions, any satisfaction may be diminished by the knowledge that all will, eventually, end; aspirations and ambitions too. I should be able to come up with some sort of answer to this, but maybe there is none. The loss of meaning seems to be inherent in the gaining of meaning. I continue to search for some sort of resolution.