Beyond Bitterness

A subtitle for this article might be “The Pursuit of Happiness: Part Two.” Another might be “Coping with Disappointment.”

Disappointment, alas, is part of the very weave of life. The first time an infant cries for his mother and she doesn’t appear immediately, he learns the acrid taste of disappointment. His desire for satisfaction has been thwarted, and that makes him sad.

Grown-ups crave satisfaction and contentment, too. Like that infant, we reel with dismay when these essential needs are not forthcoming. I once read a piece of advice about how to avoid disappointment. “Don’t expect anything,” the advisor suggested, “and you will never be disappointed.” It seems to me that this contains a nugget of good sense. I’m not saying that we should never hope for anything. Living without hope is existing in a room without light. But there is a difference between hoping and expecting.

Hope implies a longing for something, along with a sense of possibility that it might come your way. Expectation goes beyond that. It is a demand rather than a request. Expectations are an inevitable breeding-ground for disappointment.

People cope with disappointment in different ways. For some, the reaction is a stiff upper lip, a shrug of the shoulder and a determined forward stride. Others are not so resilient. They let chagrin build up inside like a toxic acid, until their whole being is filled with the bitter bile of discontent. You’ve met some of them, I’m sure: people who live in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction that stems from disappointment. This may manifest itself in cynical talk, tears or just a gloomy demeanor, but the essence is the same: a profound bitterness. A sense of life having let them down, as if life owed them a debt and then reneged on paying.

Life doesn’t owe us happiness. In fact, life doesn’t owe us anything. Maybe we’re making a mistake in thinking that happiness is our goal in the first place. Let me explain what I mean.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the pursuit of happiness. In it, I suggested that happiness is not something to be pursued but rather an attitude to be cultivated. I’d like to propose the theory that it’s a mistake to set happiness up as the prize in the first place. The Founding Fathers of America doubtless had the people’s good at heart when propounding our inalienable right to pursue happiness, but that unending pursuit seems to have engendered a great deal of disappointment along the way, along with depression and bitterness. Maybe we’ve got the focus wrong.

When you look at every situation through the prism of, “Does this make me happy,” what happens is that anything that isn’t happy-making is automatic fodder for sadness. But is that really the only choice? Are our lives built around the dichotomy of happiness-versus-disappointment, or are we looking at things the wrong way?

••

In Dr. Seuss’s charming, if heartbreaking, picture-book entitled The Lorax, a greedy entrepreneur devastates a virtual paradise in his eagerness to make money. He builds a factory which manufactures thneeds. What are thneeds? They are an enigmatic item, and rather frivolous-looking. But, as that entrepreneur will proudly tell anyone who asks, “Thneeds are a fine something that all people need.” A little like happiness, right?

Now, there’s no disputing that people need happiness. Hashem, in His compassion, has laced the infrastructure of our lives with tremendous potential for human happiness. Marriage, children, friends and family, job satisfaction, creative activity, beautiful scenery, beautiful music and meaningful human interaction; all of these things, and so much more, are loaded with happiness potential. But there is a reason for our existence that goes far beyond the aim of making ourselves happy.

As the Ramchal forcefully propounds in Mesilas Yesharim, we were put here to fulfill a purpose: to perfect our characters in this world so that we will merit true and eternal bliss in the Next World. The Vilna Gaon goes so far as to say that unless a person works on improving his middos, there would be no point in his being alive. With every move we make or don’t make, we are building our future. From this perspective, any temporal happiness we are fortunate enough to experience along the way is like whipped cream on top of a piece of cake. Nice, but not essential. Kind of like a thneed.

If we regard life as a vast, fascinating laboratory designed to produce our best selves, then disappointment does not have to contradict happiness at all. Instead, we can view every instance of suffering as an opportunity to make strides in our spiritual growth. We can take the disappointments that life hands us, and ask ourselves, “How can I use this to make myself a better person? How can I react properly to life’s failure to provide me with contentment and satisfaction?”

If this sounds like a hard level to live up to, that’s because it is. Our minds may know that suffering is a test. Our minds may even know exactly what we have to do to pass that test. But our very real, very pressing human emotions cry out, “I don’t want to pass tests! I just want to be happy!” Deafened by these clamorous feelings, it can be hard to make out the thin, small voice of reason that’s trying desperately to guide us through the morass.

We’re hard-wired to crave physical and emotional happiness. Hashem wants us to enjoy all the bounty of His beautiful world. But we must never lose sight of the overarching goal.

Fortunately, that goal is not incompatible with happiness. There is a deep sense of satisfaction that comes from handling yourself well in times of trouble. Often, lasting bonds are forged through suffering, and timeless lessons learned. When pain and deprivation come along, instead of letting ourselves slide into bitterness by focusing on our dashed hopes and disappointment, we’re much better off mining the character gems that will earn us the other kind of happiness. The lasting kind.

Each time we draw on our inner strength to react correctly to pain and disappointment, with bitachon and tefillah and kindness to others, we create a treasure beyond reckoning. Instead of spending our energy churning out thneeds, which may look pretty and feel good but have very little lasting value, we can focus on forming yet another brick in a spiritual edifice that is all our own.

An edifice that will stand forever.

Our custom-made palace in Olam Haba.