Third in an occasional series. Read "Why I Left" part one here; part two here. I welcome your comments and questions.
I am a firm believer that disillusionment is at least value-neutral and quite possibly a dispensation of grace. By disillusionment Moses forsook his Egyptian upbringing, later embracing his identity as a Jewish deliverer; by disillusionment King David ended his silence and confessed his sin; by disillusionment Jonah sang inside the belly of a whale and changed his course, which eventually changed the destiny of the Ninevites. By disillusionment Peter told Jesus to go away from him, only to hear Jesus bid him to follow; by disillusionment did he weep at his own betrayal of Jesus before his execution, only to be restored after the resurrection. The evangelical account of conversion demands disillusionment—a turning away from our past life, with all its sins and self-assertions. We sing things as audaciously disillusioned as “This world is not my home,” “I once was lost,” “I was sinking deep in sin.” We don’t repent of our disillusionment; we repent because of it.
Nevertheless, in and of itself disillusionment doesn’t deliver the goods. A disillusioned Moses would still be wandering the desert, too jaded to waste time on a burning bush. A disillusioned King David would have ceded the throne and retired to a cave somewhere. A disillusioned Peter would have let Jesus leave, would have rejected Jesus’ offer of restoration. No, disillusionment is intimately connected, in the evangelical story, with hope.
Hope doesn’t necessarily replace disillusionment for us; rather it counterbalances it, offering our Christian experience a dynamic constructive tension that keeps us from settling into either despair or naïve optimism. Like those desk toys in which two magnets exert equally repulsive force on a metal pen or ball or some sort, hope and disillusionment conspire to leave us hanging. They keep us unsettled, shimmering with the kinetic energy of a propulsive faith, ready—-whether we want to be or not, whether we’re conscious of our readiness or not-—to be changed, uprooted, rerouted, freshly commissioned.
But nobody likes a state of perpetual tension, no matter how dynamic or constructive. Disillusionment, for all the negative energy the word connotes, by itself is at least a fixed state. We know what to expect from disillusionment, and we know what not to expect. It’s comfortable in its own way. That’s why we get so thrown when we’re surprised by hope; it disrupts our settled state, stirring up feelings we thought we’d dispensed with or been drained of.
Likewise hope--and perhaps even moreso--is a comfortable condition. Hope without disillusionment assumes that this is the best of all possible worlds and that tomorrow will be better than today. Nobody likes a person who lives entirely in the realm of hope, but that person doesn’t care—tomorrow will be better.
No, there’s an important alchemy in the collision and collusion of hope and disillusionment. These two tastes go great together, if by “great” you mean that they do a great thing. They keep us moving: they keep us expectant while assuming no great change; they keep us grounded in reality while waiting for the happy ending; they allow us to survive and even thrive in the here and now, rather than retreating into the elusive future or sulking in the perpetual present. “An optimist,” my daddy always tells me, “can never be pleasantly surprised,” but a pessimist can never be enthused or excited. Without each other, neither can be much of anything, quite honestly. But together—together brings the magic.