Coping with coronavirus disappointments: Five lessons from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Brian Rosner on how the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a surprising source of help in the face of our own disappointments today.

I started 2020 with five New Year’s resolutions and seven anticipations, things I was eagerly looking forward to, such as special social occasions and travel. I won’t comment on my progress on the resolutions — my brother-in-law reckons New Year’s resolutions are a to-do list for the first week in January, and I don’t want to confirm his cynicism. But I will report that five of my seven anticipations have been cancelled, with the two in November and December looking less likely every day.

For some of us, the personal cost of the coronavirus will be huge; for others less profound, but still troubling. But one form of suffering will afflict us all — namely, the experience of disappointment. With everything from meals out and sport to weddings and funerals being cancelled, “cancel culture” is taking on a new meaning. No one will be immune from disappointments, the displeasure of having our anticipations unfulfilled.

For a case study in coping with disappointment in the context of isolation and social distancing, we find a surprising source of help in Dietrich Bonhoeffer — the pastor, author and church leader who was active in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

Bonhoeffer’s life story is a mixed genre. It started out like a fairy tale. Born in 1906 to a prominent German family, Bonhoeffer was a tall man, possessing an athletic physique and a round boyish face. With his mother’s blue eyes and blond hair, he perfectly fit Hitler’s Aryan stereotype. But any affinity between Bonhoeffer and the Third Reich stopped there.

With the rise to power of Hitler in 1933, Bonhoeffer’s fairy tale took a dangerous turn, transforming into a spy thriller. His opposition to National Socialism began early, when Bonhoeffer gave a radio broadcast on the dangers of charismatic leadership. It was abruptly ended by government censure. For the next ten years, Bonhoeffer worked for the good of his nation, eventually operating as a double agent. Employed by the Abwehr, a division of German Intelligence, Bonhoeffer used his contacts outside of Germany to support the insurgency. A man of impeccable integrity, Bonhoeffer also functioned as the conscience of the conspirators, commending their moral courage and bolstering their resolve.

Along with the spy thriller, Bonhoeffer’s life was a tragic love story. In June 1942 Dietrich met Maria von Wedemeyer. Maria was beautiful, poised, cultured and filled with vitality, but only eighteen years of age — fully seventeen years younger than Dietrich. Bonhoeffer and Maria fell in love. Maria’s father had been killed on the Russian Front and her mother insisted on a year’s separation to test the couple’s feelings. But Maria convinced her mother otherwise and in January 1943, with some restrictions in place, they were engaged to be married. Unfortunately, “happily ever after” is not the way their story ended.

Two key aspirations of Bonhoeffer’s life — the renewal of the German church and people and his plans to marry his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer — were both cruelly thwarted. In 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo, incarcerated for two years, and finally executed at the order of Adolf Hitler.

Bonhoeffer’s prison musings offer sage advice and salient lessons.

If some disappointments are mild, Bonhoeffer’s were crushing. How did Bonhoeffer handle his disappointments? Although he wrote a number of books, the answer to this question is found in the remarkable letters to and from his parents, relatives, fiancée and above all his best friend Eberhard Bethge, collected and published in the now classic volumes Letters and Papers from Prison and Love Letters from Cell 92. With social isolation ahead for all of us, at least in a physical sense, Bonhoeffer’s prison musings offer sage advice and salient lessons.

First, focus on what really matters. According to Bonhoeffer not all disappointments are equal. He urged an ordering of priorities:

“There is hardly anything that can make you happier than to feel that you count for something with other people. What matters here is not numbers, but intensity. In the long run, human relationships are the most important thing in life. God uses us in his dealings with others. Everything else is very close to hubris.”

In the strange world of physical distancing, we do well to remember that we don’t have to be relationally distant. There are still ways to cultivate community that don’t involve getting up close and personal physically.

Second, stay cheerful. Bonhoeffer wrote to his fiancée Maria: “Go on being cheerful, patient and brave.” And he told Bethge to “spread hilaritas.” Even amid hardship, a joyful optimism can prevail. Cheerfulness was in fact one of Bonhoeffer’s abiding qualities despite the horrors of prison. In his famous prison poem, “Who am I?” the opening stanza reads: “They often tell me I would step from my cell’s confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.”

Indeed, Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison are surprisingly dotted with glimpses of humour. He quips: “Prison life brings home to one how nature carries on uninterruptedly its quiet, open life, and it gives one quite a special, perhaps a sentimental, attitude towards animal and plant life, except that my attitude towards the flies in my cell remains very unsentimental.” Bonhoeffer and Bethge wrote back and forth over the naming of Bethge’s first child. When the name “Dietrich” was floated, Dietrich wrote back to the couple amusingly: “You still seem to be thinking of ‘Dietrich’. The name is good, the model less so.”

In Bonhoeffer’s case cheerfulness was no accident of temperament; it was born of his unshakeable confidence in God.

Perhaps those corny coronavirus memes scattered across social media serve a purpose. In Bonhoeffer’s case cheerfulness was no accident of temperament; it was born of his unshakeable confidence in God: “I’m travelling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I’m being led. My past life is brim-full of God’s goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified.”

Third, embrace optimism. Bonhoeffer’s approach to prison life was not to allow the confinement to restrict his activity. Quite literally, he did not sit still while waiting for his hope for freedom to materialise:

“I read, meditate, write, pace up and down my cell — without rubbing myself sore against the walls like a polar bear. The great thing is to stick to what one still has and can do — there is still plenty left — and not to be dominated by the thought of what one cannot do, and the feelings of resentment and discontent.”

This is good advice for anyone facing the frustrations of an ongoing disappointment and restrictive circumstances.

Late 1942 and early 1943, just a few months before his arrest, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of reflections to his fellow conspirators, entitled “After Ten Years.” In it he refuses to be pessimistic, even though the goal of removing Hitler looked so unattainable. He went on to explain that there are two kinds of optimism:

“It is true that there is a silly, cowardly kind of optimism, which we must condemn. But the optimism that is will for the future should never be despised, even if it is proved wrong a hundred times; it is health and vitality, and the sick man has no business to impugn it.”

With a chilling allusion to the danger the Resistance members faced, Bonhoeffer mused: “It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; in that case, we shall gladly stop working for a better future. But not before.”

Fourth, compare yourself with those less fortunate. When things don’t work out as you’d hope they would, the natural thing to do is to become self-absorbed, to lose perspective and to be enveloped in self-pity. Envy is the oxygen to an unhealthy response to disappointment and envy thrives on comparison. Put simply, Bonhoeffer seems to have avoided this danger by comparing downwards, not upwards.

He wrote to Bethge: “When people suggest in their letters … that I’m ‘suffering’ here, I reject the thought … I doubt very much whether I’m ‘suffering’ any more than … most people are suffering today.” When confronted with terrifying air raids he reasoned: “When the bombs come shrieking down, I always think how trivial it all is compared with what you’re going through out there.” And he was constantly concerned about and asked after the welfare of his comrades. For instance, he wrote with reference to the church leader Martin Niemöller, who had been in Dachau concentration camp since 1937: “Please harbour no regrets about me. Martin has had nearly seven years of it, and that is a very different matter.” The sad irony is that Niemöller survived the war, and Bonhoeffer did not.

Bonhoeffer continued to feel the pain of others despite his own troubles, believing that “the centre of our own lives is outside ourselves.” Indeed, his faith enabled him to retain a broader view of his circumstances: “As long as one doesn’t lose sight of the greater issues in these small disappointments that one keeps on experiencing, one soon sees how trivial one’s own personal privations are.”

Fifth, the believer should walk through their disappointments with God. Bonhoeffer’s sense of living life before God can be heard in the Hugo Wolf song he quoted in two letters, to his parents and to Hans von Dohnanyi, his brother-in-law and fellow conspirator: “Over night, over night, come joy and sorrow, and before you know it, both leave you and go to the Lord, to say how you have borne them.” According to Bonhoeffer, “it all turns on that ‘how’, which is more important than anything that happens to you from the outside.”

In relation to his fiancée’s well-being, Bonhoeffer was encouraged that Maria too had “learnt very early to recognize a stronger and more gracious hand in what men inflict upon us.” He wrote to Maria concerning the German poet Adalbert Stifter’s description of pain as “the holiest angel,” that “there is an even holier angel than pain, and that is joy in God.” He encouraged her to believe that “God is forever upsetting our plans, but only in order to fulfil his own, better plans through us.” To Maria’s mother he wrote: “We want to receive what God bestows on us with open, outstretched hands and delight in it with all our heart, and with a quiet heart we will sacrifice what God does not yet grant us or takes away from us.” This God-centred view of life’s unfulfilled desires was the bedrock of his resilience.

Chances are that over the coming months many of us will identify with Bonhoeffer’s disappointments and frustrations in his confinement — albeit for most of us, with the volume turned down. Bonhoeffer’s advice to us would be to focus on what really matters, stay cheerful, embrace optimism, compare yourself with those less fortunate, and walk through your disappointments with God.

Brian Rosner is the principal of Ridley College, Melbourne, and a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity. He is the author of Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity and editor of The Consolations of Theology (in which he wrote the chapter, “Bonhoeffer on Disappointment”).

This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.