“What do you do when disappointment comes? When it weighs on you like a rock, you can either let it press you down until you become discouraged, even devastated, or you can use it as a stepping-stone to better things.”
Yesterday, while on my walk, the word “Disappointment” was dropped into my head and heart as if by some Divine force. Sometimes, that’s how my life works, God lays a bread crumb trail to where I’m needed. I followed the crumbs to Facebook, where I asked people to share their experiences of disappointment. Nearly twenty hours later, I am still getting pings on Messenger, and the stories have brought me to tears.
I’ll start with mine.
I have, for two consecutive years, been interviewing to work with the Disney Corporation in a department so perfectly suited to my talents, training, and experience that it might have been created specifically for me: to host in the student field trip program at Disneyland in Anaheim. Last year, I got so close to a job offer that I put myself on a waiting list for a spot at a long-term camping resort just a couple of miles from the park, and, in an attempt to put manifestation to work for a dream, I wrote a blog post that I never got to publish to announce my new position:
“And so here I am. I am about to leave for Anaheim, where I will spend my days with student groups, taking everything I have learned about teaching and classroom management as well as all the skills I honed running the School Days program at Texas Renaissance Festival to walk alongside them in the most magical place I know. I will get to share my love of theatre and my love of Mickey Mouse. I don’t know if this will be a forever career or a seasonal one, but I have spent enough time among seasonal festival business people to have no fear of the unknown.”
It is only slightly comforting to know that the coronavirus would have halted the dream. Had I gotten the job and toodled my tiny camper to Cali only to be sent home like all the frontline Disney employees were in April, the knowledge that I had gotten the offer, that I had done the work for a couple of months, that I would have a place waiting for me when the virus had run its course, does not dampen the tremendous sense of disappointment.
It is likely that this year I would have gotten an offer in September. No more. The parks are barely functioning, schools are unlikely to open as normal this fall. Budgets on both ends of this equation are stripped to their bare minimums. I may be able to postpone this dream for one more year, perhaps September of 2021 will bring me an offer. But damn, it has been excruciating to examine that dream, then stash it in the box on my highest closet shelf, a clear plastic bin full of Mickey ears, souvenir pins, and my name tag from the Disney leadership summit I attended in 2018.
A dear friend of our family, a young woman I held when she was just three days old, graduated from high school this June. We had watched all her posts of spinning flags in her school’s corps, her photos of banquets in pretty gowns, her braces on, then her gleaming, perfect smile when the braces came off. She didn’t get her prom, her graduation was weird. I had a hoodie custom made for her to wear at her university this fall, but her family is not even sure what university life will look like- will she get to move into the dorm, attend Fish Camp, pledge a club? Disappointment.
A friend miscarried at 7. 5 weeks, but because of Covid didn’t have access to in-person medical care until her 13th week, when an ultrasound revealed a gestational sac that had stopped growing. With only virtual visits and a revolving door of doctors, her diagnosis was missed, and what was meant to be a Father’s Day announcement of a new baby became instead a D-and-C. Profound, heart-wrenching disappointment.
My friends have lost dream careers, canceled long-awaited family reunions, foregone first-baby showers, and summer camps. They’re scared they’ll lose their aging parents during this awful time when they cannot say goodbye except through a video app on the phone or computer. One is, in fact, watching her mother die and she can’t say goodbye in person. A couple have lost close family members and could not seek the comfort of ritual and family to sustain them in their grief.
One of the strongest women I know wrote:
It starts early in our lives and comes in big packages and small. A birthday party rained out, a cancer surgery unsuccessful. A cake is dry, a parent abuses. Disappointment may be mild, it can be devastating. And we all know that the very worst critique we can receive from a parent, teacher, or boss is, “I’m disappointed in you.”
Disappointment is something we humans must wrestle with, though thankfully, not constantly. Even in a challenging, dark life, there are glorious moments when we get the part we auditioned for, when healthy babies are born, when the movies we’ve anticipated are as good as we’d hoped. Medical tests come back with favorable results, apologies are offered and accepted, the sun shines on the wedding day; simple kindnesses like bread shared or a letter received bring just a glimmer of joy.
I have learned that the best way to overcome disappointment is first, acknowledge that it’s there. We can’t deal with what we’re too afraid or ashamed to name. Share the burden of it with a friend. Let them share with you as well.
Next, we look inward, which requires a commitment to gentle but honest self-examination. I used to believe in rigorous, unflinching self-examination, but that only led to being hypercritical of myself, unforgiving and unwilling to grant grace for my own failures. To grow in grace, to be honest about my own disappointments, to acknowledge when I have disappointed others, I listen. I seek wisdom from those who are living lives that shine, sometimes in the form of conversations with trusted mentors, frequently in podcasts, constantly in books.
Spend time in fresh air. For me, this is to walk or ride my bicycle or, when rheumatoid arthritis is wracking, to sit. To settle among birds, dragonflies, and breeze is healing. I do not know that there is a way to live in spiritual or mental health unless one gets outside. When I am among the trees and grass, I have my best ideas, I lay plans and untangle the knots in my thinking. And I am, thank all that is good and wholesome, not mindlessly scrolling the swamp that Facebook can become.
Express the disappointment, if it lives in the shadows and crevices of your heart, it will fester. I write. Every day, every morning. I write by hand, two to three pages. It is a practice that has become as necessary as air. I used to think it was my daily orange juice that got me going in the morning; I know for many folks, it’s their first cup of coffee. But for me, spending thirty minutes writing before I dive into my day has been life-changing. The words are uncensored and inelegant, a nearly-illegible scrawl. I ponder and process feminine spirituality, I list things I am grateful for, I articulate dreams, I unpack the worries that are plaguing me. I have been sleeping better since I began this writing practice, I think it’s vital.
To look outward, though, that is the final stepping stone to lay on our path to healing and mental health. We can’t look outward in a way that compares our own suffering or disappointments to others’, on that path exists only bitterness or pride; there will always be someone who has it better and someone who has it worse. Our disappointment is ours, and it is valid. No, what I mean by “looking outward” is simply this: look for ways to serve, to heal. Write letters. Call a lonely friend or elder person who lives alone. Sew masks and distribute them to the less fortunate. Listen to the stories of the unheard. Deliver meals. Discover your gift then ply it to plug joy back into the connected race that is all of us. Set your sights on the restoration of the soul of humanity.
These actions serve to nourish and defend against the sharpest nettles of disappointment. They are stones that can be stacked, one beside and above the other, to forge a path that leads us out of today’s disappointment and ahead to tomorrow’s blessing. It’s hard to see sometimes. But stillness followed by service can be a gorgeous way forward. The inimitable Marilyn Monroe once said, “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” I love that. Our world is falling apart. Perhaps we will build something better, both in a global sense and a deeply personal one.