Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Cost and Irony of Discouragement

You have heard the aphorism that "time is money." And in a highly competitive world that places monetary values on almost everything, this makes a certain amount of sense. It obviously makes sense if you are getting paid by the hour. It also makes sense - although a bit more indirectly - if you don't. Such being our perception of the world, it behooves us to consider one of the major enemies of time management. I refer to the problem of discouragement.

Not every hour of our day is maximally productive. I am best in the morning; and since study is important to me, I like to spend part of each morning studying. I am quite a bit less productive in the evening. This can change, however, if I happen to be discouraged. On really bad days, I might get almost nothing accomplished. The cost of this unproductive discouragement can be significant. But I would like to make the argument that the cost is greater than we might imagine if our calculations are merely monetary calculations. The real cost of discouragement has little to do with money and everything to do with the lack of fulfillment in our lives.

Discouragement can come from many places. Often it comes from the behavior of others. Sometimes it comes from failing to accomplish what we have our heart set on. Sometimes it comes because of poor health. Sometimes we are justified in being disappointed. Other times we are not. Some people are chronically discouraged. Others pass into and out of discouragement. Some people are discouraged so often that they become physically ill. However it is manifest, discouragement is worth reckoning with. It is much too costly to ignore - especially considering the value of the lives that it diminishes.

Several years ago while I was working as a part time Spanish teacher to pay my way through college, I had a chance conversation with my boss. He was also a student and had been studying business management - if my memory serves me correctly. One day he made the comment to me that the major cause of disappointment was unfulfilled expectations. This surprised me for a couple of reasons. The first thing was that I hadn't initially realized this young man was so thoughtful. The second reason was that it shifted the responsibility of discouragement from others to me. Our conversation wasn't really about me - it was about some of our young students. But the simple statement has stayed with me all these years as something that is both obvious and yet often overlooked. We get discouraged because things don't go the way we want them to. This is inevitable. But in the end, we have the ability to find fulfillment.

For Buddhists, all of this is much too obvious. The central tenets of their faith revolve around the unhappiness that comes from wanting things. For them the only relief from this unhappiness is to stop desiring things altogether. I am not in a position to be overly critical of this belief, since I haven't read enough about what they mean by it. I agree with their understanding that desires do cause us grief. I do think, however, that there is a way to find happiness - even enduring happiness - without giving away our desires.

Consider a lonely mother desiring to be reconciled with her wayward son. She may be partly responsible for their estrangement and may or may not be able to make amends. Either way, her desire is not a bad thing. In fact it remains a virtue even if her unhappiness is great and her life would be better if she could just stop worrying about the boy. In fact one can make the argument that a denial of this desire would lessen the mother's humanity. It is not a natural thing for us to not have desires.

And yet it is precisely these desires - or rather the thwarting of these desires - that cause us discouragement. And this discouragement is one of the greatest drags that keep us from becoming what we otherwise have the potential to become.

One of the immediate - and very common - signs of discouragement is to give up. Young people are particularly prone to this mistake. A typical example would be a young man discovering that he has a knack for art. He then spends every one of his high school electives taking art classes. His teachers encourage him because he is their star student. Other teachers, parents and friends also praise his work. Then he enrolls in an art class at college and no longer is the favored student. Other young artists do better work than he does - or so it appears to him. After the first semester, he decides on a different major and never picks up a paintbrush again. He has succumbed to the false notion that if he can't be the best, he might as well be nothing at all.

And so what happens to this young man is that he ends up in a profession that he is only partially interested in. As he gets older he struggles with the tedium of his life and wonders why there is no passion. If he is lucky, he might open a box from the attic one day, discover his painting supplies and try again. Maybe then he can overcome the misconception of his youth.

Is there a way that the grieving mother or the young artist could have prevented - or perhaps overcome - their discouragement? I think the answer is a distinct maybe. The discouragement that comes from a denial of love can be outside of our control. If the son never does make reconciliation, his mother will always grieve. She may apologize for any wrongs she may have done and do everything else to bring him back and yet still fail. For her the best answer may only be patience and to continue in love for others.

For the young artist, his discouragement is self-imposed. He made comparative success the basis for his happiness instead of the artistic involvement with beauty. His discouragement can be overcome by recognizing his mistake and by painting again because he has a gift. In the process, he may find himself again. And in this there is a bit of irony. As he becomes truer to his own nature - overcoming the competitive (even commercial) distraction of his youth - he will inevitably become a better employee. He will in all likelihood make his employer more competitive and more money.

But this misses the point for sure. Failure hurts, just as illness does or loss of friendships does. There is no way to have desires and avoid discouragement. Buddha was right. But desire has another side as well - a human side. It is the side of joy and fulfillment that comes from becoming who we are and who we are meant to be. And the key verb here is "to become". We'll never be the perfect beings we hope to be here in mortality. We will be much less. But failing to pursue the love of others and our own individual gifts - however imperfectly we may succeed - is a sure recipe for inner conflict and even greater discouragement.

A key lesson in all of this is to accept discouragement as we struggle to find the right things to desire. Remarkably as we do this, while being true to God, our desires will become more pure. They will become more capable of an enduring fulfillment. They will also become truer to our own natures - because God rejoices in our individuality and He seeks our happiness. So wherever we may be on this mortal road of discouragement, the best advice is to accept the pain and then move on. We were meant to want things. And we were meant to have joy.

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