Thursday 1 October 2015

52 Ordinary Words: Disappointment

How disappointed we feel will depend on the magnitude of our disappointment.  If my soufflé fails to rise or I discover the dress I planned to wear to an important occasion no longer fits I will be mildly disappointed, but if my daughter fails to win a place at the university of her choosing I may be very disappointed.  I may feel that the decision to turn her down is unfair.  All the more so if I believe that it will have a significant impact on her career, once she graduates. 

I will be disappointed on her behalf, as well.  And, like most parents, I will feel disappointed, for her, if her boyfriend dumps her for someone else. The disappointment I feel will be the measure of how deeply I empathise with her disappointment.

How we respond to any given disappointment – how unhappy we feel - is measure of much we’ve invested in our hopes and expectations for an outcome.  We will doubtless feel sadness, dissatisfaction or displeasure that something we’d anticipated would go according to plan has not come to pass.  And if, upon reflection, we can see beyond our immediate feelings, disappointment can be a means for growth.  We may find that as we comfort ourselves with platitudes like, ‘It wasn’t meant to be,’ or ‘There’s plenty more fish in the sea,’ that there’s compensation to be had in every disappointment

David Whyte, writing in Consolations agrees that disappointment can be a teacher: an opportunity to not only reappraise who we have become and our relationship to the world (our place in it) but also to consider “the larger foundational reality that lies beyond any false self we had only projected upon the outer world.”  Disappointment may be “the first stage of our emancipation into the next greater pattern of existence.”

So the measure of what we can learn from disappointment is the measure of our willingness to embrace it as a teacher; our willingness to allow it to bring us back down to ground.  Whyte understands this to mean that disappointment can restore us “to a firmer sense of our self, a surer sense of our world, and what is good and possible for us in the world, or whether we experience it only as a wound that makes us retreat from farther participation.”

In the light of what we discover about ourselves and the world  we may see that our aspirations weren’t realistic in the first place and consider that if we set our expectations lower, we’ll have less disappointment, and any disappointment we do experience won’t feel as crushing:  if we don’t have hope, our hope can’t be crushed.  Without hope and expectation, we couldn’t have disappointment.  But is living without hope a life really worth living? Would we really be happier if we expected everything in our life to crumble to ashes?  Realistically we wouldn’t attempt anything.  Sadly, some people do give up and are reduced to shadows of their former selves.

I begin to feel that Whyte’s response on disappointment is a tad melodramatic.  At one time to disappoint mean ‘to undo the appointment, remove from office,’ but now?  I can appreciate that the confiscation of title and lands in the early fifteenth century would have had serious repercussions, but in this day and age don’t we understand disappointment to be something a lot less serious? 

Surely, what we understand as disappointment doesn’t impinge on us to this extent?  I’m not sure I would describe my response to a heart broken in love or the hurt a disloyal friend has caused me as merely disappointing; I would consider the word disappointment too mild.  

OK.  I’m probably splitting hairs.   A mid-life crisis can be described as having a sense of profound disappointment – not as a response to any one event, but to a series of events.  My understanding is that disappointment of this magnitude (which I feel is where Whyte is coming from) is best described as a nebulous intense feeling – that will have as much to do with how we consider things ought to be as with how things actually are.  

And thus - despite my misgivings - I find myself agreeing with Whyte.  Irrespective of the magnitude disappointment is always a reality check and a call to transformation.


  1. I agree that disappointment is too mild a word for a true heartbreak, where we grieve and, most likely feel despair. Yet, the visual that came to me for disappointment was like small cracks in the heart. I also relate to Whyte's description of disappointment as a reality check. For, others' needs and motivations will not match ours exactly, and this fact may lead to disappointment if we think they do.

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