Saturday, 15 September 2007

Disappointment is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

When I was a child I was always heartened when adults would say to me 'I am very disappointed in you; I expected you to do better'. I always thought that was much greater praise than them saying that you had done excellently. When you are praised, especially as a child, you are uncertain whether it comes from genuine motives or whether the adult is trying to get you to feel good or even to make themselves look good. When they said they were disappointed it was more of a personal emotion and it indicated they thought highly of you in a way that could never be disproved; 'the sweetest tune is an unheard melody'. The adult might have expected you to come first in a race, in reality you probably would have come third or eighth but if you stomped out in a tantrum, it could never be proven that you would have not come first and the adult by saying they were disappointed in you would always hold on to that 'if only he had run, then he would have come first'.

Things obviously change when you get older. People rarely have high expectations for fellow adults. In the UK in fact most adults seem to have very low expectations of others and if people do something good or worthwhile they are irritated or somehow expect some cheating or that it was done with some ulterior motive. The sense of disappointment is not there. Rather it comes from oneself. I have quoted that saying 'after his child, the person a man first disappoints is himself'. Many of us fall into that trap, that, if only I had worked harder or gone for that job or talked to that man/woman or pushed my ideas more firmly, I would have been a success. By being disappointed in yourself you similarly flatter yourself. Of course only a very small percentage of people are ever going to be successful and if you had worked harder it is unlikely that you would have progressed and better and that woman/man is likely to have ignored you or been insulted that you were interested in them. Yet, by never trying those things we keep ourselves safe. If you test out every possibility you will soon be suicidal as you will discover quickly that this society lets very few people succeed. This is one thing I admire about British society compared to the USA. US society is still addicted to the sense that everything is possible of you try hard enough. In the UK we know that is a lie and to some extent most us avoid the bitterness which hits so many Americans so hard as they get older or are made redundant. If you expect to achieve nothing, everything you get is a real bonus, but if you expect the world, to be denied even a small element of that is frustrating.

What provoked this was coming across a woman I had attended school with many decades ago. She has two books out and is online being interviewed about what she has written. She even has a wikipedia entry about how she lives by a lake with her partner and two children. In the past you could always reassure yourself that even if you were doing badly the bulk of your classmates were probably faring no better. These days though with social spaces like MySpace, Facebook, Friends Reunited, etc., etc., you cannot continue with that fantasy, their success is thrust back in your face. I avoid these sorts of things but it is sometimes inescapable as when I was walking down a street in London and the face of someone I had gone to school with (and I went to ordinary comprehensive schools not Eton or Charterhouse) was plastered five metres high on the side of a double-decker bus publicising something they were presenting. The think about seeing people you know in such a context is that you might think, well I never had millionaire parents or went to Oxford University like so many successful people, but when it is someone from the same background as yourself, you may begin thinking, well why could I have not done so well?

I think much of this stuff comes from ageing. I am now middle-aged and probably will have a mid-life crisis where I think I should be buying a Harley Davidson motorbike and driving around the world on it. I have written four novels in my life, half written two more (lethargy has plagued me now for almost eight years and put an end to any chance I had at success - and there it is: I think I actually had a chance if only I have been able to muster enough energy, whereas, in fact, my novels would have simply been consigned to the recycling bin with the thousands agents and publishers receive each year). So here is to disappointment, disappointment of a particular kind that of not reaching the standards that you or others probably unrealistically set, yet in that non-attainment being left with crumbs which keep us from suicide - not 'what if?' but 'if only'. 'If only' can keep you sane and help you get through the times that make most people wonder why they bother keeping up the effort of remaining alive.

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