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Preparing for disappointment

My grade school was Catholic. But I was lucky. Unlike some of my peers, I escaped those demented pedagogues — with all their knobby knuckles, chalky crowfeet and unquestioning ritualism — largely without indoctrination.

My grade school was Catholic. But I was lucky. Unlike some of my peers, I escaped those demented pedagogues — with all their knobby knuckles, chalky crowfeet and unquestioning ritualism — largely without indoctrination. For better or worse, I come to you without a guilt complex. For better, in my opinion.

Here’s the rub with Catholic education: All the useful lessons are the ones they don’t want you to learn. But who really cares what they want, right? Exactly. If I wanted to play with matches in a pile of dry pine needles, then maybe I needed to learn something about combustion, and maybe the faculty should’ve just let me go about my education. Call it a field day. No doubt I would’ve been better prepared for college, when I accidentally lit an entire backyard on fire.

Of all the things I learned in Catholic school, perhaps the most interesting and resonating is the stubbornness with which people cling to their beliefs. I’m not sure how I found out — though I suspect my sister had something to do with it — but, in Grade 3, I discovered the utter lie that is Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I informed my classmates, and one of them, his worldview rapidly collapsing, told the teacher. She gave me a three-day, in-school suspension and made me retract my statements.

These were people educated in an institution that subscribes to the existence of a supernatural being who can control weather, rise from the dead, turn boring liquids into alcoholic ones and otherwise behave like a character from some sort of theological sci-fi narrative. Given the givings, it’s not especially shocking that they readily believed in a giant, candy-delivering bunny and a fat, chimney-hopping philanthropist with stables of floating reindeer. Still, it’s more sad than funny if you imagine them trying to cope with disillusionment during puberty.

The lesson: If you believe in something too blindly, if you unswervingly invest your emotional capital in the existence of something ethereal, then you are simply setting yourself up for disappointment.

And now pity Barack Obama, his sleigh all stuffed with change as he assembles his reindeer in a climate of unattainable expectations. It’s not really his fault, despite his gilded tongue. After eight years of listening to George Bush chew the language like broken glass, the American public can be forgiven for getting sucked hope-first into the lofty rhetoric of a smart person. Still, in the wake of success, the spectre of failure looms rather large — not real failure, mind, but rather disappointment, a feeling typically earmarked for people who abandon reality and give themselves over too fully to something intangible.

Obama is aware of that pending discontent. Just consider his acceptance speech.

“The road will be long,” he said. “Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year, or even one term.”

No shit, eh? The past eight years have been eventful, just overflowing with the sorts of experiences that make people stop and remember where they were when the news broke. Airplanes slamming into buildings; the bumbling, adversarial dance between human rights and national security; the stretching of military capacities in lands of perpetual violence; the slow but steady realignment of world power; the collapse of sacrosanct economics. Oh, and the election of a black president. It’s 10 o’clock; do you know where your worldview is?

Tens of millions of Americans do. And, awkwardly, Obama now has them to thank, to serve and, inevitably, to disappoint. From Afghanistan to Iraq, from Russia to Iran, the going will be exhausting. And, after a nap, there’s still China.

From crime and poverty to social security and education, there’s no shortage of domestic issues to fret over. Like, imagine managing $10 trillion in debt, to say nothing of nearly $1 trillion in bailout funds. And then there are the deeper economic issues to understand and evolve — and a 17-member team, Warren Buffet and Google brass notwithstanding, will be aggressively challenged to cope.

The fact of that team, which was so quickly assembled, is a message in and of itself. “See? I’m already trying. Now please be patient.”

It’s not that a McCain victory would’ve done any better. On the contrary, it would’ve been immeasurably worse, an administrative disaster with ongoing comic relief for cynics and nihilists. The problem is more complicated than that. Over the course of the campaign, Obama transcended his humanity. He became a symbol. And symbols die as hard as they do easy. Just wait until he gets his first scandal.

It’s important to realize: Obama can’t turn the water of American and global politics into the wine of world peace. No one person can. He won’t be stuffing substantial credit relief down American chimneys anytime soon. Come Easter morning, don’t waste too much time looking for renewed foreign policy all coated in chocolate and wrapped in tinfoil. It won’t be there, at least not right away.

And if that’s important to realize, then, for Americans first and the world second, this is important to remember: It’s not the guy’s fault.

During his first press conference last week, Obama again tried to prep supporters for the hard edges of realism. Specifically, he was talking about the economy, but you can apply these same words to any issue on the White House agenda: “Some of the choices we have to make are going to be difficult,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy to dig ourselves out of the hole that we are in.”