On The Acceptance Of Disappointments

There is no man who can boast of having enjoyed an unbroken string of successes.  The variability of Fortune, a pervasive theme in these pages, is a force of nature that ensures success will be liberally interspersed by failure.  So it seems to me that we ought to spent just as much time–perhaps even more time–in equipping ourselves with the tools needed to deal with defeats and disappointments, than we do in preparing ourselves for short-lived victory parades.  The seasoned, mature mind will wave to the crowd, and enjoy his moment of reflected glory, remembering all the while that dejection is waiting for him just around the next corner.  I believe it was Theodore Roosevelt who said that, nearly as soon as man passes through the triumphal arches of his victory parade, the crowd will be ready to pelt him in the back with bricks.  And this is undoubtedly true.

Most of the problem lies in the fact that we are creatures of expectancy.  Anticipation of glory tricks our minds into believing that glory has already arrived.  The riches that might require years of sustained effort to acquire will often seem closer than they really are, tantalizing our minds and oppressing our focus on what matters at the present moment.  That which we desire, we believe we are owed.  Herodotus (I.187-190) tells us of a Babylonian queen named Nitocris who sought to make this very point as her final statement to the living.  He says that the queen constructed a tomb for herself over one of the main gateways leading into Babylon, so that it towered over the entrance that people walked through.  On the outside of the tomb she had inscribed the following words:

If any king of Babylon is in need of funds, let him open my sarcophagus and take as much as he needs.  This should only be done in case of dire need.  Anyone who disturbs my tomb for any other reason will regret it.

The tomb of Queen Nitocris apparently lay undisturbed for many years until the advent of Darius I of Persia, who lived from 550 to 486 B.C.  Darius resented the location of the tomb, for to him it was bad luck to have to pass under a corpse; more importantly, perhaps, he resented knowing that there was a treasure-chest of gold that could be put to better use than accompanying an expired queen.  He thus ordered his retainers to open Nitocris’s tomb.  Inside he found it contained only the preserved body of the great queen, along with this message:

If you, friend, had not been so greedy and eager to lay your hands on the property of others by dishonorable means, you would never have disturbed the tomb of the dead.

In this way did the queen have the last laugh at the follies of the living.  We are not told what Darius’s response to this disappointment was; but royalty is not inclined to be philosophical where matters of state finances are concerned.  Better was the way in which that great scholar and man of letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson, handled a bitter literary disappointment.  According to James Boswell, whose life of Johnson remains one of the great biographies in the English language, Johnson had worked extremely hard to write and produce his play Irene.

The Drury Lane Theatre, London, 1749

It was performed in London at the Drury Lane Theatre on February 6, 1749, and ran for nine nights; but it was not a success.  The public greeted it with apathy.  Only another writer, who has himself invested heart and soul in an artistic creation, can know the sting of disappointment that accompanies such an event; and for a man of Johnson’s pride, the incident must have been deeply wounding.  But he did not retreat into self-pity.  Boswell elaborates:

When asked how he felt about the ill success of his tragedy [Irene], he replied, “Like the Monument.”  Meaning that he continued firm and unmoved as that column.  And let it be remembered, as an admonition to the genus irratibile of dramatick writers, that this great man, instead of peevishly complaining of the bad taste of the town, submitted to its decision without a murmur.  He had, indeed, on all occasions, a great deference to the general opinion:  “A man (said he) who writes a book, thinks himself wiser or wittier than the rest of mankind; he supposes that he can instruct or amuse them, and the publick to whom he appeals, must, after all, be the judges of his pretensions.”

This was the wise way in which Johnson philosophically accepted his disappointment.  He continued to write, of course, and is now remembered as one of the key figures of eighteenth-century English literature.  Even a great writer cannot expect every product of his pen to be golden.  What matters is that he continue, and never lose faith in himself.  As I see things, a man should do the following practical things to shield himself from the sting of disappointment.

He should first recognize that not all disappointments are equal.  Some are trifling or superficial, such as those that relate to lost opportunities or missed chances.  Others are more profound, and cut to the core of our being, leaving us with an anguished sense of vacuity.  Superficial disappointments should be glossed over with a minimum of fuss.  The more serious disappointments require specific treatment.  I have found from experience that it is a good idea to rehearse with oneself a way of explaining the disappointment to others.  Internal feelings are one thing; shame is another.

People have a way of knowing when something bad happens.  Human nature has more than a touch of cruelty; and nothing so amuses the crowd as to see its hero stub his toe.  If you suffer some embarrassment, expect others to bring it to your attention in one way or anther.  Their purpose in bringing up an unpleasant topic is to see how you react.  Will he squirm?  Will he try to deny  it?  These are the questions that people would truly like to ask.  One must have some intelligent way of responding.  The ideal response should (1) not seek to blame others for the incident; (2) not be too lengthy; (3) not be bitter or negative; (4) be relatively light-hearted; and (5) should convey a sense of philosophical acceptance of the bad fortune.  What matters is not bad fortune, since this affects everyone; what matters is how we handle it.  This does not mean that we go around begging for sympathy from others; what I mean is that we need to find ways of tactfully acknowledging reality–for failure cannot be concealed–while not dwelling on it.  Disappointment can never be avoided; and what we cannot avoid, we should welcome:

Cupias, quodcumque necesse est.

“What is inevitable, you should look forward to.” Pharsalia IV.487

As for how we should internally accept disappointments, the answer is provided by philosophy.  We must know, and truly believe, that virtue is its own reward, and remains the only true wealth.  All other wealth is fleeting and impermanent.  We must know, and truly believe, that no material setback or tragedy can strip us of this true wealth.  Virtue is within the grasp of nearly all, provided he works hard enough and has the necessary tenacity.  When hungry, call on thirst for help; when thirsty, call on hunger.  Masculine virtue is the sword that protects us from disappointment, as well as most other ills of the mind:

Ignorantque datos, ne quisquam serviat, enses.

“And they do not realize that swords have been provided so that no man may ever be enslaved.”  Pharsalia IV.579

With this sword, let us then try to emulate Samuel Johnson in the face of grief and defeat, when he said that he remained “Like the Monument,” and moved forward in perseverance and steadfastness.


Read more in the groundbreaking translation of On Duties.  Like all of Quintus Curtius’s books, it is available in paperback, electronic, and audio formats: