James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).
Tell me what disappoints you and I will tell you what you are.
To be disappointed about something means it did not live up to expectations, to some standard. A football or basketball team may not live up to its pre-season hopes. Disappointment implies that something that could have been otherwise was not accomplished. Strictly speaking, we cannot be disappointed in things just being what they are. We cannot be disappointed in the Sun for being hot; we cannot be disappointed that owls hoot. We can only be disappointed in something that might have been done better, but in fact, was not.
Of course, disappointment might also mean that our estimates or expectations are too high. The raw material or means whereby some lofty goal was to be accomplished is simply not there. We do not put welterweights in the ring with heavyweights. This living or not living up to expectations applies to individuals such as popes, presidents, executives in Silicon Valley, actors, college professors, farmers, or employees at Home Depot and Starbucks. In a sense, the entire stock market is based on expectations of higher or lower earnings for this or that corporation.
Then, too, we have the Ten Commandments and the two Great Commandments. To be disappointed in ourselves, in the way we have chosen to live, may in fact be our first tentative step on the rocky road to redemption. Today, few think that Catholics live up to what is expected of them. Indeed, deep disappointment with hierarchy and ordinary sinners seems to be the central character of our time
In a sense, disappointment can be a healthy thing. It is a sign that the standards by which we measure things are still implicitly recognized. A passage in Psalm 21 reads: “They called on you and they were saved; they trusted and were not disappointed.” If we did not expect that things could and should have been otherwise, we would never notice any problems. Freedom and disappointment go together. We cannot have one without the possibility of the other.
I was thinking of this topic in connection with reports that Rome has quietly asked other bishops and prelates not to attend occasions when Archbishop Aloysius Schneider or Raymond Cardinal Burke was to be present. This approach disappoints. It seems so unmanly and petty, so much contrary to that robust sense of responsible discourse that the Church binds itself to uphold. Rather than meet their arguments, we are advised not to listen to them. Disappointment likewise runs high when the Holy Father does not answer questions that need answering or does not punish those whose actions demand punishment. Disappointment also comes when politicians who maintain that they are in good standing in the Church support abortion or euthanasia in various ways.
In a broader sense, we can wonder if God is disappointed with His creation. He looked upon it and found it good. He presumably was fully aware that, in creating a creature with genuine free will, things could go haywire. He thus found it advisable to enter the world itself to redeem it from its sins. When He did enter the world, He did not do so in such a manner that His disappointments with unworthy human enterprises and deeds would suddenly cease. If we look at the Crucifixion itself, it was the result, in part, of Jewish leaders being disappointed that their kind of Messiah did not come forth to free them from their enemies. And the performance of Peter and most of the other disciples during the Passion and Crucifixion can only be described as a disappointment. When it came down to the wire, they did not come through.
Other kinds of disappointment can be named. Take the rich young man in Scripture. He is invited to follow Christ. He thinks it over and decides not to follow Him. We cannot help but think that he not only disappointed Christ, but also he disappointed himself, which is why he went away “sad”. One wonders how modern divorces look under the spotlight of disappointments. Things that are affirmed “till death do us part” are cut off as not worth continuing. Children are disappointed in their parents’ divorces, wives with their husbands, and husbands with wives. Again, disappointment means not living up to an expectation, or to a standard.
The disappointed Catholics of today are not so much concerned with the world and what goes on within it. They are ready to accept the famous principle that “if a thing can go wrong, it will go wrong.” Though the world has never been more prosperous, we are hard-pressed to find things that are going right. We are Augustinians who do not expect things in this world to go right very often or for very long. Yet, disappointment is not despair. Despair would mean that what is going on in the Church today cannot be reformed and cannot change. The foundations on which the Church was built are seemingly undermined. When the famous “Gates of Hell” became visible, they seemed to prevail. But we know Christ is King and, as Christ told Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
We should be disappointed about many things in our lives, in our country, and in our Church. Disappointment is a sign to us that things have to be that ought not to be the way they are. But we cannot change the past or its disappointments. Again, if nothing disappoints us, we implicitly approve of everything, and we are not disappointed just to be disappointed. We can also be disappointed at the wrong things. The positive side of the disappointments that define us reveals those goods that last, that endure, that do not disappoint.
The Psalmist had it right: They trusted the Lord and “they were not disappointed.” Tell me what disappoints you and I will tell you what you are. The reverse of this aphorism is also true: “Tell me what does not disappoint you, and I will tell you what you are.