Universal Ethics > Thought of the Month > July 2021

Riddle:
I'm so sorry,
I'm so sad,
I lost something that I never had!

How is that possible?

Each person is born believing that he always existed. He (or she) can't remember his beginning, because his memory of early days is hazy, so the natural tendency is to assume he is immortal. Mom and dad are there to fulfil every need, and the child feels as if the whole world was created to serve him.

So everyone is set up at birth for inevitable disappointment. A few accidental bumps and scrapes as they learn to walk teaches children that they aren't invulnerable. Then they discover that other people have their own desires too, that don't always involve giving the little child what he (or she) wants. In the age of the "terrible twos" the child faces the frustration of not being permitted to do everything he may wish to try. In shock and disbelief, a child may throw a tantrum. Evidently the world wasn't created for him after all.

He (or she) thinks he lost his position as the most important person in the centre of the universe, but it was a status that he never had.

The child also eventually discovers the reality about mortality. I remember an occasion when my daughter was little, when the topic of mortality came up somehow as I read her a bedtime story. When I told her that I wouldn't live forever, she had tears in her eyes. I reassured her that I would likely live as long as she needed me. But it was a disappointment to her even so, that there would be a time that she couldn't be with me.

A next stage up in wishful thinking is to believe that the earth is the center of the universe, and that the sun, moon, and stars were all created for the benefit of people together. This "centre of the universe" idea was disputed by Galileo long ago, which was very upsetting to the people of the time. Now we know that those little dots of light in the sky that we call stars were not placed on a dome to give us navigation aids at night. They are suns much like our own sun, with billions of them in our own galaxy, and in some cases they are galaxies filled with suns. The planets too are not just dots in the sky, but are worlds of their own that our spaceships have visited. In the face of this evidence, it's pretty much impossible to maintain the illusion. Once we know the truth, there's no turning back to what we believed before.

In ancient times, it was fairly common in different parts of the world to imagine that a collection of gods took care of the world. One god would bring the sun up each day, while another was in charge of rain. This was consistent with the human-centric view of people as the most important creatures of the universe, next only to the gods themselves. But even then, those ideas were disputed. More than 2000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Epicurus argued that the gods did not involve themselves in the affairs of humans. Therefore, one could conclude that the various temples erected for the favorite gods, and the ceremonies meant to influence the gods, were all in vain.

Even though that was discovered long ago, it seems that it's something that every generation learns again for themselves. People naturally hope for a perfect world, and failing that they may hope that god(s) will make it perfect for them. But if perfection is the expectation, everything less is a disappointment. How can one be happy if disillusionment is inevitable?

As an answer, we can think back again to childhood. We see that most children are happy even after some of their childhood illusions disappear. The Easter bunny and the tooth fairy were fun but not real, the world wasn't built for the child, and nor was the universe built just for the humans of this world. But the child isn't worrying about the distant future. His (or her) life is mostly care-free, with others taking care of his essential needs. The child furthermore has the advantage that as he grows up he will be able to do more things, so that many of the things he did as play become reality.

Childhood isn't all joy. In a nostalgic view of childhood, adults often think of the optimism and freedom from responsibilities of childhood, but forget about the frustrations and disappointments.

We must understand too that not every disappointment has mitigating improvement to come later. Things break, disasters happen, people get old, and especially in that latter case people will find that their fitness and health will never return to what it was before.

With a view to making things as good as they can be, here are some things to do to address disappointment:

- Arthur de Leyssac, July 2021.

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