Yesterday, bored and stuck in traffic on a no. 47 bus, I started reading the advertisements. There were only two – one an ad for building your confidence and becoming successful through the wonder that is Scientology and the other for a cash-for-gold operation (‘Beat the Recession!’).
Now, how’s that for a picnic?
Before this nasty recession, there were ads for tracker mortgages (remember those?) and buying a property in the sun, not only on the buses but everywhere we looked. Don’t get me wrong – I can see that these ads were just as cynical. They asked you to part with your money for a ‘better’ life; they promised happiness. These current ones promise happiness too – but they have a much harder task. They offer success and money in exchange for your mind and your memories. I exaggerate, but not much.
We are a nation floored by disappointment. Despite the ugly trappings and the blatant opportunism of the boom years, we had the possibilities and opportunities back then to create a good life for ourselves, however we defined that. We took institutions, companies, newspapers and money for the arts for granted. They would be there and we would live our lives around them, using them to give ourselves a foot up to achieve what we wanted in life. The loss we are now experiencing has something to do with money and not having a lot of it. But the overall feeling, I think, is disappointment.
The word disappointment has a certain innocuous tone to it, kind of like ‘unfortunate’. It appears to gloss over catastrophic events, life-changing events.
But ‘disappointment’ is really a heavyweight bruiser. Even the phrase ‘I’m not mad, just disappointed’ is about disappointment being milder than anger, in terms of immediate consequences, but also deeper and, boy, does it linger. Disappointment can knock the wind out of you and leave you like a flat, flabby balloon.
Disappointment involves the loss of something you took for granted or something that contributed to your happiness. It could be hearing that the job you really wanted went to someone else; that the person you thought you knew is actually someone else. It could be having your fiancé walk out on you a month before the wedding; it could be the death of someone close to you. It could be that you expected to have a pension fund waiting for you when you retire and now you don’t. Disappointment happens when the world you had built up in your mind, where your expectations are fulfilled and life ticks along within your control, has been undermined or shattered. Disappointment comes down on you like a sledge hammer, along with its minions – sadness, grief, anger, even despair.
I have recently been subsumed in thoughts about disappointment, due to a personal experience of having an achievement I’d been aiming for almost handed to me and then taken away (the recession again). It’s a bitter pill and its effects take ages to fade. But you’ve got to have perspective.
So, what better way to gain perspective than to whip out that old faithful – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory in psychology which is often displayed as a pyramid. Working from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, Maslow explains human needs, from the basic and essential to the need to reach our full potential in terms of intellect and talent. On the lowest and widest level of Maslow’s pyramid are our physiological needs – food, shelter, water, sex, sleep, etc. Just above that is our need to be safe and secure − employment, health, property, resources, morality, the family. Then there is our need for love and belonging –friendship, family, intimacy. The top two levels are esteem (confidence, achievement, respect) and self-actualisation (creativity, problem solving, etc.) respectively.
While my personal disappointment has to do with the top part of the pyramid (if it was a food pyramid, my disappointment would be buns with icing and cherries on top), the disappointment in households and families around the country is linked to loss at the more essential and basic levels.
An interviewee on Prime Time the other night, a teacher in the West of Ireland where the exit turnstile is constantly turning, admitted that she felt ‘let down’. Rural communities are diminishing. Families who always assumed they would be together, working and living in close proximity, are now watching loved ones emigrate.
You’d think at this point I’d turn this piece around and start looking on the bright side. Sorry to disappoint, but sometimes it’s good to tell it like it is and to chart this part of our history for what it is.
Elizabeth Brennan works in book publishing as a commissioning editor. She likes books. She also likes writing (mostly fiction). She was pretty much the only person in the National Library on Valentine’s night.