Some of the most memorable and difficult times of my life were when I found out that something or someone I invested and believed in wasn’t what it seemed; the quintessential feeling of being duped and the loss and trauma that ensued.
Having reality shattered by external forces that once helped to shape, define and secure your reality can make you feel like you’re freefalling into an abyss; no place to land. And when you do come crashing down, it’s often not to a ‘new’ stable reality, but a fragmented picture of disjointed pieces that your mind is not capable of putting together in any coherent order. This, my friends, is what I call disillusionment.
Disillusionment comes in all forms, varying in severity: the beloved guru who is abusing his power to get into women’s pants, your favorite elementary school teacher who you found out was a racist, a parent who cheats on your other parent, the religious institution who is molesting children, the non-profit organization who is embezzling money, your abstinent teenage daughter who comes home pregnant, the list goes on…And when you’re sensitive, like I am, and place a great deal of faith in something, even a small disillusionment can feel catastrophic.
These are all examples of dis-integration, splitting off, and compartmentalization in others. How can a person be such a shining example of love and integrity one minute and the next minute be a lying and cheating asshole – and sometimes not even know it?! Jekyll meet Hyde. And what does it mean about the so-called positive traits they presented; were they REAL?! What part wasn’t, what part was?! …and down the rabbit hole we go, as we grasp at the filaments of a broken reality that flutter around us. We see this in politicians, our parents, sports figures and spiritual leaders just the same. Who are they, really?
Some hardened pragmatists might say “this is life, deal with it.” But this doesn’t get us very far, as the trauma and heartbreak associated with disillusionment doesn’t respond to numbness and flippant gestures. It is true that dealing with it isn’t for the faint of heart, but the way I figure it, if you don’t ‘deal’ with it, the heart will only become fainter…leaving us less likely to handle the other inevitable blows (big or small) that are on life’s agenda. If we don’t deal with our stuff, it deals with us.
When you’ve been let down beyond comprehension, you can go into shock, feeling alienated, isolated, and very much alone in the world – not even sure who you are anymore. Because if what or who we believed in isn’t worth their salt, who can we turn to? Who are the dependable? When our beliefs no longer hold water, we feel like we’re the ones with the holes, and often shame sets in. How do we reconcile ourselves to the painful discovery that has shaken us to the core?
Often in the process of coping with our disillusionment, we become just like those who have disappointed us – we too split off, compartmentalize, dissociate, or retaliate, as if that’s the only way we can manage what has happened. To become that which has harmed us is a defense mechanism. It is hard not to mirror this way of being back to those who have disappointed us, but it’s not ours to mirror. There is another way, one that doesn’t result in us perpetuating this dispirited way of being, one that allows us to rise from the ashes with our wings intact.
I am a sensitive person who wears her heart on her sleeve. I try to be who I appear to be in most moments in my life. In the same way, I tend to take people and their word at face value, perhaps to a fault. Though disillusionment has caused me to feel very unsafe at times, leading to all kind of trust issues and skepticism, I simply refuse to close my heart off. So how do I handle it? I turn to the one person who depends on me just as equally as I depend on her – myself. There are times in this life when the safest place to be is in your own skin and if you feel like you don’t know yourself (as is often the fallout of disillusionment) it’s the best time to get acquainted or re-acquainted. Disillusionment has been the great destroyer and subsequently the great builder in my life. I don’t long for it, but I have learned how to show up at my own inner temple when it comes my way. It is there that I find my faith again.
My context for these painful experiences is a psycho-spiritual one. To me disillusionment is an existential crisis of the alchemic kind. I’m not talking about the ‘spiritual bypass’ or ‘spiritualizing’ a very real situation by side-stepping or repressing the uncomfortable emotions that arise. I am talking about letting the emotions be as fluid as emotions are meant to be – energy in motion– so that they become a tributary to the soul and all of the lessons harbored there. Heartbreak can be converted into expansion – space to hold more, including more context.
This is not easy. When the wrecking ball of disillusionment comes crashing through your life it can take you right back to ground zero, which can be a scary place to be. It’s neither pretty nor fun, but ground zero is often the only place where you can construct a more authentic reality – one that is soul grown and not factory farmed by external influences. It’s not to say that you dismiss external influences, it just means that you hold to your center in their presence. So many of the lost parts of ourselves end up being recovered and transformed in the process of going through loss – that is the great irony. What looks and feels like a wasteland can actually be the vast space we need to cultivate new sustenance for ourselves and others; here a deepened level of awareness emerges. One persons’ compost may well be the fertilizer needed for our expansion.
One of the most disillusioning events that I experienced as a young adult, was when my best friend since 8th grade and I went off to college together and became roommates. Soon after living on campus, she became involved in a religious cult. I saw her become a different person before my eyes, losing her personality and turning very ugly in her way of being in the world and towards me – all in the name of God. She had been so much a part of my being, my identity – like a sister, and her ‘disappearance’ and the heart-breaking loss I felt set me off on a dark night’s journey. Disillusioned and aimless in my confusion, I somehow found a way to keep coming back to a sort of self-reliance in the heart of it; my emotions being my Sherpa on this steep climb up the mountain of uncertainty. I began asking questions, which led to answers found deep in my bones, and this great startle led to a path of deep emotional, psychological and spiritual inquiry. It was a turning point in my life; so much self-growth came from it and still does.
The thing about loss and disillusionment is that after the initial shock, it can propel you in new and courageous ways. It is what all the great heroes’ and heroines’ journeys are made up of. When we feel we have nothing left to lose, up is our only direction. In words of J.K. Rowling, “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Every time you’re faced with life-altering disillusionment, it is a not-so-discrete call back home to yourself; a summons to go deep inside for the truth that lies within; to recognize the place God dwells, waiting to hold the space for that groundswell of anger, rage, grief, sorrow and disbelief. We soon learn that we cannot reconcile what happened with our minds. Feelings, when allowed to be felt and not judged, will take us where we need to go.
If we numb and distract ourselves, it keeps us from learning the skills needed to really navigate the waters meant to be sailed by us! If we dust off and calibrate that inner compass, adjust the sails, find good crew, and heed our course,then perhaps when the earthquake of disillusionment tremors below us, it is not the tsunami we get, but some sizable yet manageable waves, which can get our attention but don’t drown us. It is not the end of the world, but a chance to dance with what is raw and vulnerable underneath our habitual ways of being so that we come through to the other side – yes, maybe a bit more jaded, maybe a bit more cautious, but mostly more solid in WHO WE ARE. It is us after all, who steers our own ship, sets the anchor and with whom we fall asleep with every night under the stars. Be true to that person, so that when others let you down, you can take refuge in your own skin. The more you know and trust yourself, the safer you will feel in the world.