“Disappointment is just the initial meeting with the frontier of an evolving life, an invitation to reality, which we expected to be one way and turns out to be another, often something more difficult, and strangely, in the end, more rewarding.” David Whyte
I hate when I disappoint people. Yes, hate is a strong word, but there are few things in life I hate more than disappointing people. Okay, I hate war and poverty more. And those who know me well know how much I despise email, but in the small sphere of my personal world, disappointing people tops the list of things I hate.
It’s probably no small accident of fate that ministry, the vocation to which I’ve been called is one where I’m almost guaranteed to disappoint someone — on a regular basis, maybe even every day.
Those who come through the doors of the church are hoping that their deepest needs will be met, needs for comfort, for love, to be affirmed, to be accepted, to find meaning, purpose, a sense of belonging, and a transcendent connection to something divine and holy. Some come looking for material needs: food, shelter, transportation, or a job. Then there are those who don’t quite know what it is they are hoping to find. They only know the painful sting of disappointment when that deep, unspoken need isn’t fulfilled.
There are two ways that I – and by extension, the church – disappoint people.
The first has to do with the reality of human limits and imperfections. The church is a human institution that serves divine purposes. Sometimes I screw up. I make mistakes. Sometimes the church screws up and makes mistakes. We all come up against limits of time and energy. Sometimes we are simply unable to meet a particular person’s need.
This first way of disappointing people is actually the easier of the two. Mistakes can be addressed through apology. They become opportunities for learning, growth, and change. Coming up against limits helps to focus our energies on what is most important. Recognizing our imperfections and limits, we forgive ourselves and each other. We begin again in love.
The second way of disappointing people is infinitely more difficult – failing to meet unspoken and unrealistic expectations. When I find out that I’ve failed to meet an expectation that I didn’t know someone had, it can send me into a tailspin of insecure feelings. I wonder at my own competence. I feel powerless. To pull myself out of the death spiral of negativity, I remind my self that while there may be people who are truly clairvoyant, I’m not one of them.
I learned early in life how to manage my own disappointments. Being the third child of four, I was never the center of attention the way my older brothers and younger sister were. One Christmas, as I poured over the Montgomery Ward catalog, making my Christmas wish list, I found my mother’s Christmas shopping list, written on a scrap of paper tucked neatly at the back.
My illusions of Santa had been dispelled a couple years before. I knew the gifts came from mom and dad. I even knew the family budget was tight, so I made my Christmas wish list keeping that reality in mind. What I really wanted was the Barbie Dream house, which I knew was out of reach. I limited my list to a few new outfits for Barbie.
Tears stung my eyes as I read my mother’s list. My brothers were to get a train set to share. My sister was to get a new tricycle. I was to get a slip. Yes, that’s right. A slip — that undergarment that goes under your dress so your legs don’t show through. Most girls my age got them along with their back-to-school clothes. I was to get mine for Christmas. Great.
When Christmas morning arrived, I knew exactly what to expect. There would be no Christmas surprise. In a strange way, it was a relief. Upon waking, I made up my mind that I was going to have a happy Christmas. I focused on the sparkly tree, the pretty packages, and the yummy Norwegian sweetbread that we always ate for Christmas breakfast. I grew up a little bit that day.
My young self learned that the way to avoid disappointment is to manage my own expectations – a spiritual gift that has served me well. To the best of my ability, I let other people know what my expectations of them are. When I embark on a new adventure or enter into a new situation, I try to release expectations and simply be present to whatever unfolds. Releasing expectations involves letting go of a certain amount of control.
I can’t say that my life is completely free of disappointment. When it arises, it’s a message that alerts me to some deep, inner longing that is unspoken and unmet. Usually it turns out to be the very things people come to church seeking: to be understood, to be respected, to be seen, to be heard, to be accepted, to be loved.
The poet David Whyte wrote a book titled Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. He has this to say about disappointment:
“Disappointment is a friend to transformation, a call to both accuracy and generosity in the assessment of our self and others, a test of sincerity and a catalyst of resilience. Disappointment is just the initial meeting with the frontier of an evolving life, an invitation to reality, which we expected to be one way and turns out to be another, often something more difficult, and strangely, in the end, more rewarding.”
Maybe disappointment can be a spiritual guide, leading us into life’s deep yearnings, the universal longings that ultimately connect us to each other in our common humanity. Maybe it’s nothing more and nothing less than a message of the spirit, a necessary disillusionment — an invitation to the reality of imperfection and limitation.
I’m sure I will continue to disappoint people. Maybe I can hate it less knowing it is truly a gateway to transformation.