Creative Disillusionment

Reverend Furrer preaching on recognizing the creative potential in disillusionment; how to avoid despair and re-engage.

“Creative Disillusionment”

This morning I want to preach on disillusionment. Disillusionment is a common experience the world over. Many religious liberals are disillusioned with the growing political ascendancy of the Religious Right; environmentalists disillusioned with discarded pollution controls; indigenous rights and labor activists disillusioned with economic globalization. And of course peace activists the world over are disillusioned about American foreign policy now that it’s firmly in the hands of the demogogue-loving Donald Trump and his no-more-kid-gloves imperial policy.

William Bridges [1933 – 2013] was an American author, speaker, and organizational consultant. He wrote wisely about disillusionment in his book, Transitions. William Bridges studied how people deal with difficult passages in their lives, especially those who negotiate them creatively and with grace and renewed vitality. Having taken disillusionment apart, Bridges proposed that instead of one term—disillusionment—there be three:

  • Dis-enchantment  —often a good thing;
  • Dis-engagement   —disengagement is a natural response to disenchantment

and also a good thing. And third:

  • Re-engagement     —which is also healthy and natural, but can sometimes get

short-circuited in despair or disparagement—both of which

are always sad, and sometimes even wicked.

So what I’m preaching on, ultimately, is how to avoid despair. Not on how to avoid disillusionment, mind you, since that can be (and often is) a good thing. No; I want to preach on recognizing disillusionment as potentially destructive, but also as potentially very positive.

Let us contemplate, then, disillusionment as a three-part process: disenchantment / disengagement / re-engagement. This process is common to all life transitions: moves, illnesses, deaths, job changes, divorces—any of the many changes we all go through, sometimes willingly and sometimes not so willingly, in our lives.[1]

Now it seems to me that there is probably no time in a person’s life more transitional than the teenage years. These are tough times, tough years for anyone. Those of our young people who get lost in the despair of drugs, gangs, rigid political/religious fringe movements, and suicide have basically become hung up, halfway through the creative disillusionment process. They’ve let go of their old identity—as children—be they haven’t be able to make the transition to the new—as young adults. Our ESUC Coming of Age program is designed to help our youth make that transition. Still, we all know that adolescence is an up-for-grabs kind of experience that can be pretty difficult.

There’s always a danger, for any of us, whenever we’re in the midst of a major transition. Separated from our old identity and former situation-in-life, we float free in a kind of limbo between two worlds. But in many ways—most ways probably—we are still tied to our old world more than the new. There’s still a reality in our minds (a picture of “the way things are”), which ties us to our old world and identity with subtle strands of assumption and expectation. The sun will rise tomorrow, we assure ourselves; my parents have always loved me, the government would never lie to us, God is just. These things are so, we believe, and if they are not my world is no longer real. The realization that in some respects one’s world is indeed no longer real is what I mean when I speak of disenchantment.

In traditional rites of passage disenchantment was a carefully arranged experience. And it was the most critical revelation of adulthood training. In the ceremony for entry into the healing cult of the Ndembu of Zambia, initiates are brought before a strange shape in the jungle, which they’re told is Kavula, the cult’s Spirit. Then suddenly and unexpectedly they’re told to beat the spirit-shape with sticks and kill it. In the end they’re shown that the thing being beaten is nothing but a cloth-covered frame under which adepts have been hiding.

A similar process takes place in other rites of passage ceremonies: when Hopi youths see the awe-inspiring kachinas unmask for the first time (revealing their neighbors and friends), or when terrified initiates in aboriginal Australia are shown that the fearful sound of the Great Spirit Dhur-a-moo-lan is nothing more than a bull-roarer: a piece of wood on a thong. In all of these (and countless other) sacred initiation rites disillusionment is the essence of the newly revealed adult “Truth.”

Talk about liberation! Talk about open-mindedness!

Contrast this with how we prepare our youth: fill ‘em up with firmly held wishes (i.e., illusions), that, when destroyed, all but destroy their faith in everything. For example, “America is the greatest country on earth.” Then they find out about the Slave Trade, Watergate, CIA profiteering in Central America and now across the globe. Or we encourage them to look up to hard-working and successful role models like Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds (to name two recent examples) who turn out to be all-too-unheroic.

The Hopi and the Ndembu and the Australian aborigines may, I suspect, have long understood something that we, in our literate sophistication, have forgotten: that disillusionment is a natural and regular way of life. Think of the hundreds of disenchantments of our own lives: the discovery that there is no Santa Claus; that parents sometimes lie and are afraid and make immature decisions; that best friends sometimes let you down. These disenchantments didn’t end with our childhoods either, nor are they over yet. One’s lifetime is a long chain of disenchantments, many small and a few huge: lovers who prove unfaithful, leaders who are corrupt, idols who turned out to be petty and dull, organizations that betrayed our trust. And worst of all: those times when we ourselves turn out to be what we said, and even believed, we were not. Disenchantment, one eventually discovers, is a recurrent experience throughout the lifetime of anyone who has the courage and trust to believe in the first place.

Now in every life transition, certainly in every disillusioning transition, disenchantment, it seems to me, is the first step. And often it is only s-l-o-w-l-y or in retrospect than we begin to see disenchantment as meaningful in any positive way. When you discover that fatal love letter or get the news that you’ve been fired, it’s pointless to talk about old realities or new ones. Later, however, it is important to reflect on these things. The old must be cleared away before the new can grow.

There’s a famous story from Japan about a university professor who went to visit a famous Zen Master in order to learn from him.  During their meeting, the professor talked and talked on and on about all the books he had read, and all the Zen Masters he had met, and all that he knew about Zen Buddhism. Meanwhile, the Master prepared tea for his guest. When it was ready, he poured some into the visitor’s cup. With perfect form he filled it to the brim… and then kept pouring as the hot tea splashed across the table and onto the floor. The professor watched in horror until he could stand it no longer, then blurted out, “It’s over-full! No more will go in!”

“You are like this cup,” the master serenely replied, “so full of your own ideas and opinions that there is no room for anything new. How can I teach you about Zen unless you first empty your cup?” Jesus similarly pointed this out in Matthew 9:17, explaining that the mind is a vessel that must be emptied of old wine before new wine can be put in.

Lacking such a perspective we often miss the growth opportunity disillusioning experiences provide. The dis-enchanted person recognizes the old view as sufficient in its time, but insufficient now: “I needed to believe that husbands (or friends or mentors) were always trustworthy; it protected me against some of the contingencies of life.” On the other hand the despairing person simply rejects the embodiment of the earlier view, not the view. She gets a new husband or he gets a new boss but both of them leave unchanged the old enchanted view of relationships. The disenchanted move on, but the despairing get stuck; they buy tickets to the same play and watch it all over again, only this time with new actors.

Try thinking about this as a Hindu would: you may be stuck for untold lifetimes, but eventually you can always come around. Take, for instance, the Bill Murray character in the movie “Groundhog Day.” He kept going through the same routine again and again, day after day, until he finally woke up and left his old enchantment behind. As any of us can do the same. The despairing are stuck, all right, but the good news is that it may be only temporary.

The really stuck, on the other hand—the very saddest souls, it seems to me—are people who dispense with enchantment altogether, old and new. Having been burned a couple of times, they deal with their wounds by freezing up and turning themselves into hardened, no-nonsense cynics. Their worlds have little wonder or redemptive good fortune at all: “All men are misogynists,” they flatly maintain; “Politicians are all corrupt.” “Germans are closet Nazis. Asians are thieves.”

*                    *                    *

“My God died,” wrote the Nobel Prize-winning author Eli Wiesel, “when I got off the train at Auschwitz.” As it did for most people who disembarked that train. But while many became cynics, Wiesel did not. He writes about it in Night, an autobiographical account of his experience in the death camps. Saddest of all, he says, were the muscleman, as they were known in the camps: veritable zombies, these people were, for all intents and purposes, the walking dead. Wiesel refused to become one; he moved on instead. Disenchanted? Yes. Disengaged? Surely. Uncomprehending? Without a doubt. Blown away by inhumanly brutal events that threatened to topple his faith? That, too.

The God of Wiesel’s youth died, that’s for sure, as emphatically as the Ndembu’s Kavula does when it’s revealed to be nothing but a cloth-covered frame. But Eli Wiesel did not respond to his disillusionment by just quitting. He dis-engaged, all right, but then he re-engaged from a new, grown-up perspective. He continued his dialogue, his struggle with God. Still he continued to wrestle with Life. Still questioned. Still demanded to know.

Another death camp survivor was the Viennese psychotherapist Viktor Frankl. Frankl’s observations complement Wiesel’s, it seems to me, especially about the redemptive value of refusing to quit wrestling with God/Reality/Fate (whatever you want to call it) and refusing to become a muscleman, “Everything can be taken from a man, writes Frankl, “but …the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” [Man’s Search For Meaning, p.104]

No doubt many of you have seen the 1993 Steven Spielberg movie “Schindler’s List.” Oskar Schindler is a very good example of what I mean by creative disillusionment. At the movie’s beginning our as-yet-undiscovered hero is totally wrapped up in Nazism, proud to be a party member and gladly exploiting the opportunities it affords him to meet women and make money. But as time goes on—and as he begins to really see the Nazis for what they were—he became disenchanted. In the movie, as in the book, Schindler’s disenchantment is symbolized by his growing horror watching the movements of a little red-coated girl amidst SS murderers liquidating the ghetto of Cracow. But his disenchantment led neither to disparagement nor despair. He goes from disenchantment to disengagement. Then, once he sees more clearly, he changes his view and approach. He stops abetting the Nazi machine and begins subverting it. He became re-engaged, fighting fearlessly to confront the Nazi system. And he was successful.

Oskar Schindler was one of many. Eli Wiesel. Viktor Frankl. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Corrie Aquino, Nelson Mandela. All these heroes suffered grave disenchantment, but avoided despair by dis- and then re-engaging.

*                    *                    *

All life is change, transition. Asked once what was the greatest wisdom he know, Abraham Lincoln replied, “That this, too, will pass.” Life is change, is transition. If you want to be alive you’ve got to change, too, along with it. Above all, you simply can’t allow yourself to stagnate, which is essentially what happens to cynics. They give up, like musclemen. Quit growing. And spiritually, they die.

We are, I think, all of us in some fundamental archetypal way like Jacob, the Biblical patriarch. Before he started to struggle with the deeper questions of life (symbolized by his wrestling with an angel), he was just Jacob. Good old Jacob: just another untransformed, somewhat sneaky person. But once he re-engaged he became ISRAEL: one who struggles with God, with Life!

One of the functions of traditional adolescent training and initiation rituals was to provide the now-become-adults with role models of appropriate behavior, i.e., with heroes and heroines. Israel nee Jacob is such a hero, and a prototype, it seems to me, for

                                    all growth,

                                                all transformation,

                                                            all renewal

                                    of HOPE

                                                and FAITH

                                                            and MEANING.

The man struggles. And throughout the pages of Genesis becomes disillusioned time and again. Yet with each disillusionment comes a new look and then re-engagement and continued struggle. He doesn’t quit; he “gets down!” He doesn’t jump off the bridge; he builds a new bridge. He doesn’t gnash teeth and rend garments (or at least not for long). He keeps his eyes relaxed and ears open. Holds his head high and goes forward. Letting the old illusions go, seeing anew. And thus it all comes to him again; again and again: the beginner’s mind cultivated by Zen.

It would be very helpful, I think, if our adolescent training rituals focused on these dynamics, giving our young people a paradigm of disillusionment-into-reengagement, as natives do. If we unmasked the Kachinas! Instead we’re—most of us, anyway—brought up on a variety of worn-out shibboleths and clichés.

  • My country right or wrong;
  • All you need is love;
  • Onward and upward, progress forever;
  • Someday my prince will come;
  • They’ll live happily ever after—

all of which are nothing but illusions. Beautiful illusions, it’s true. And truthful illusions, for a time. That is, until we outgrow them, and can re-engage with new, more grown-up illusions. Or with the old illusions, but in a new, more grown-up way. No longer “clinging” to some fading (or faded) cloth-covered frame. But letting go, with engaged (that is, reengaged) open hearts and minds.

Willing to get burned, and willing to grow. Re-engaging in the wake of each lost illusion! In the words of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Looking through a glass onion.” Looking through and peeling away the layers of life, one after another. Unmasking the Kachinas! Letting go to have it all…on our way…home.


[1] The same process also applies for institutions…like a church. But more on that over the course of the summer.