Meet My Friend, Disappointment

I'd like to tell you about my new friend, Disappointment.

If that sentence sounds strange, you're wrong--it's straight-up bizarre, bordering on blasphemy.

If only my younger self could read those words. I guarantee he'd feel like I've betrayed him. The only other acts that could come close to this level of treachery would be if I declared myself a Cowboys fan or I suggested Cory may have been better off with Lauren instead of Topanga. (Don't judge me, world, but I have entertained the thought.)

A friendship between me and disappointment is like declaring peace between Lex Luthor and Superman, North Korea and South Korea, or Ed Hardy clothes and your eyes. I've historically had a very hostile relationship with disappointment. I've always had the tendency to be a dreamer, to have lofty ideals and high expectations. Anyone cut from that cloth knows the risk of dreaming, hoping, and expecting--an inevitable crash and burn. A heaping pile of rubble known as disappointment.

Some disappointment is small and inconsequential--more like the nuisance of a mosquito bite or a spilled glass of iced tea at the dinner table. That kind of disappointment doesn't slow a person down too much or pack enough heat to intimidate the dreamer in all of his or her ideal-clad armor.

But disappointment has a cache of serious weaponry. If you dream big or high or long enough, if you expect enough out of any person or situation, you'll find yourself under fire. Sooner or later, disappointment hits you with the heavy stuff, and that's when the fight gets bitter. 

Maybe you know that kind of disappointment. The disappointment of heartbreak and rejection, of failure and fears coming true, of those expectations you sent flying into the sky only to watch them plummet back to earth. This disappointment punches you in the gut the first time you're betrayed by the person you love. It strips you naked when the project you believed in and fought for falls apart. It chews up your expectations, your ideals, your dreams, and spits them out in a mashed pile at your feet.

Disappointment can be a dangerous enemy. If it lands a solid blow, you start to question yourself, your ideals, your beliefs, your past, your present, your future. It makes you act out of step with your character and your best self. I've found there's usually two extremes in the way we deal with disappointment.

The pendulum swings one way, and suddenly, everything we do is dictated by fear. We play it so safe, so sterile, so protected, so risk-free, and we do it so disappointment can't possibly touch us. We stop pursuing opportunities at work or in our relationships. We stop being vulnerable with people. We stop ourselves from getting into any situation where we can't control the outcome. And as a result, we stop growing. We stop living.

The pendulum swings the other way, and we not only let ourselves feel disappointment, we let ourselves be dominated by it. When disappointment shows up, we give it the keys, and we let it drive us off the nearest cliff. Disappointment wants us to ride the emotional rollercoaster--and we ride it. Disappointment tells us we're worthless--and we believe it. Disappointment tells us to give up faith or hope--and we give it up. Disappointment tells us it will always be like this--always hard, always painful, always pointless--and we sink into despair.

It's taken me a long time to figure out I don't have to live in either of those extremes.

I've lived through enough letdowns, enough heartbreak, enough rejection, enough failure to realize that even my worst disappointments--the ones that force me to my knees and convince me I can't handle anything more--begin to fade over time.

The disappointments I thought I'd never survive? I survived them. Every single one. Every time I thought a disappointment would put me down for good, it didn't. Every time I was convinced I'd never recover, never move on, never be brave again--I was wrong.

Here are two truths about disappointment that have changed the way I interact with it:

1. We have an incredible ability to survive disappointment.

I know this because I've lived it my whole life, and I've seen it in others every day. When disappointment hits us, we want to believe all kinds of lies about how we'll never be okay again, we'll never make it through, about how it would be better to give up and quit dreaming or hoping or believing. It's just not true.

I know your heart was broken. I know your world crumbled. I know you've been dragged through the mud. I know the lights have been snuffed out and you're in darkness right now.

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in a year, but someday, I swear to God--you will be okay. 

You will get back up.

You will make it.

If it's bad enough, you may be left with scars (I can show you mine), you may be left with a limp, but the disappointment? It doesn't have the staying power you think it does.

Your disappointment feels like a mountain towering over you now, but with time and--more importantly--hope, that mountain will erode, be ground down into dust. You won't live in the shadow of that disappointment forever.

2. We can't escape disappointments in this life.

And because we can't escape disappointment, because it's inevitable, I decided to stop fighting it. I decided to stop viewing it as my enemy and trying to do everything I can to work against it. I decided to embrace it.

I don't embrace disappointment the way a cynic embraces it. A cynic uses disappointment as a chain--like a bird who's meant to fly but is tied down. Disappointment is their main vehicle, and it always keeps them aground. That's not what I want. I still want to fly. I still want to dream. I want to hope. I want to expect good things.

Instead of a chain, I view disappointment more as a stabilizer, a supplement as I try to fly. Disappointment doesn't keep me from taking off--it steadies my flight. It sharpens my vision. And for anyone who has the tendency to dream big or expect much, we need that. We need something to stabilize us. Dreaming, hoping, expecting without any guidance system looks more like a blind housefly zig-zagging all over the place until it crashes into a wall.

But what if we held our disappointments--past and potential ones--close, each one a little lesson that informs our flight, a little bit of data in the form of wisdom to help us navigate this life better than we could have otherwise. Someone who can hold disappointment close does so like a hawk--glides through the air, steady, with purpose, surveys what it sees, and waits for the right moments to dive for what it wants. I never thought I'd say it, but I need disappointment in my life.

This newfound friendship I have with disappointment helps take some of the sting out of my interactions with it. I know we're going to meet at some point. I know it's not going to feel good at first. But I know this, too: I'm eventually going to be okay, and it's eventually going to help me if I let it. I can't tell you how much better life is when I stop fighting disappointment tooth and nail, and work with it instead.

Here's to a long and healthy relationship with my new friend.