Facing Disillusionment with Life, and Finding a Way Through
At this point in our collective journey, disillusionment with life has almost become a pandemic of its own. A great many people in our time are having to deal with disillusionment, in one of its many forms.
For a good number of people, the experience of the pandemic has led to a sense of disillusionment with life. However, prior to the pandemic, many modern people were having their own particular disillusioning experiences. There are a good many factors in modern life that can weigh heavily on our sense of optimism and our trust in others.
Yet, what do we actually mean when we refer to disillusionment? Essentially, disillusionment is the feeling state that arises from the discovery that something—of importance—is not what it was anticipated to be. Often, there can be a traumatic element to disillusionment. This is because it can involve discovering that a belief or perception central to our sense of identity, or to our sense of basic trust in life, is no longer true. Or, possibly, that it never was true.
During the pandemic many people have experienced deep disillusionment in connection with work, career or profession. Others have uncovered a profound sense of disillusionment with life in the context of close relationships and family.
What Seemed to be True, Isn’t
We can see a very clear example of disillusionment if we look at the experience of many people in the education or health care professions over the course of the pandemic. People who enter these fields usually have high professional standards and a very strong ethic of care for the people for whom they provide services. However, many who work in these fields have found themselves subject to extraordinary demands throughout our COVID-19 experience.
During this period, many in these professions have found themselves dealing with extreme situations. They have been expected to meet very high professional standards, in which they themselves deeply believe. Yet they found themselves lacking the capacity to meet those standards. For a variety of reasons, the institutions for which they worked either could not, or would not, provide them with the means to fulfill their professional obligations in a way that aligns with their personal values. Sometimes this had to do with demands imposed by new technology, or with situations of being hopelessly short-staffed, or with conflicts between highly important obligations.
The nursing profession even has a term for this type of experience. Dr. Marian Altman of the American Association of Critical Care Nurses refers to “moral distress”. Both educators and nurses have been strongly affected by having to work in environments where they are:
- performing care or activities perceived as futile;
- carrying out unnecessary or unneeded treatments or activities;
- witnessing needless suffering or distress;
- coping with inadequate staffing; or
- experiencing poor, inadequate or misleading communication.
Life Experience and Disillusionment
While the pandemic has made these issues particularly apparent for those in education or healthcare, the experience of disillusionment is shared by people from all walks of life. CBC As It Happens host Carol Off is stepping back from her role, and recently spoke of an acceptance of “mediocrity”, or an “It’s all we can do” mentality in fields like business and journalism.
Similarly, through the pandemic, many people have discovered that relationships that seemed secure and reliable, with friends, or within families, are more fragile. I have heard numerous clients describe family conflict due to different perspectives on COVID-19, and many authorities attest to this. Sometimes this conflict can be so intense that key relationships, such as between spouses, or parents and children, come under great tension, or break down.
It’s a common experience in life to discover that organizations or institutions don’t live up to the values that they proclaim. It’s an equally common experience to find that relationships that are supposedly trustworthy, secure and supportive don’t prove to be reliable, perhaps when we most need them. This is especially true during major life transitions.
Getting Past Illusion and Finding Something Real
To experience disillusionment with life is often to experience a loss of some or all of the sense of meaning in life. There is a strange blessing in disillusionment. Where once we held onto an illusion, now we no longer do, and we know the truth. This truth may be very painful, but at least we are no longer clinging to manifest falsehood.
In saying this, I certainly am not meaning to minimize or dismiss the pain that accompanies disillusionment with life, What can we possibly to to help ourselves deal with that? Is there anything good that could possibly come from disillusionment?
C.G. Jung gives us this surprising quote:
A life of ease and security has convinced everyone of all the material joys…but it has never produced spirit. Probably only suffering, disillusion and self-denial do that [italics mine].
C.G. Jung, CW 18
Initially, this seems somewhat shocking. Disillusionment is such a harsh experience. How could it possibly produce spirit?
Disillusionment can easily lead to feelings of sadness, fear or even anger. If we find ourselves experiencing these feelings, we might sit in them and become paralyzed, and immobilized by feelings of anxiety and depression. But Jung seems to suggest another possibility. This is that we might somehow face our intense feelings around disillusionment and acknowledge them, including mourning the loss we have experienced in the death of our illusions, and then somehow work with that raw material in such a way that it becomes spirit.
Small Steps Beyond Disillusionment with Life
This might entail a number of seemingly small steps. It would include acknowledging the full range of feelings that accompany our disillusionment with life. This actually might not be small at all. It might then be important to see if there is any way that I can turn my anger, sadness and disappointment into some kind of meaningful action. Disillusionment might lead me to feel that I lack power. Yet, is there any way I can use the power I do have to affect something, to bring change to something, to make something happen?
Similarly, is there any way that I can use this time to make connection? This might take a number of different forms. Can I make connection with others who share my values, and perhaps work towards a common cause or just share my friendship or experience with them? Are there any possibilities for reaching out in a way that helps others? Finally, is there some way of connecting to God, the universe or the Ground of being, however you might conceive of it, and honouring that reality?
In many cases, people find it valuable to find support through an affirming relationship when dealing with issues involving disillusionment.
Wishing you every good thing on your personal journey,