Dealing with disappointment
“What’s wrong with you, you look really fed up?” “Yes, well I’m really disappointed with my friends.” “Why, what did they do?” “It’s what they did not do that that I find so unacceptable. They promised to help me with my moving and said they would come over before nine on Saturday with their pick-up. Well they just didn’t show up. Then they called to say they had some urgent family business to attend to and would not be able to help as promised.”
Buddhism teaches us that life is fundamentally disappointment and suffering; that suffering is a result of our desire for pleasure, power and continued existence and that in order to free ourselves from disappointment and suffering we must first rid ourselves of desire. Buddhism also teaches that the way to do that is by following the Noble Eightfold Path _ right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right concentration.
Simple enough, so why are we still being disappointed? Why are we still suffering? Perhaps its because of another word inextricably linked to disappointment expectation. Cynics often say, “I ask for nothing, I expect nothing. In that way I cannot be disappointed”.We could get clever here and say the “nothing” is in fact their expectation but the probable truth is that when people say they expect nothing its just their way of trying not to tempt providence.
Our expectations, especially when concerned with the behaviour of other people, are themselves more often than not based on a false notion of reality. For expectations we can read hopes, dreams, and even fantasies. Other people can only be what they are. When we create expectations for their behaviour, we are more than likely to be disappointed.
“I really wanted that part. It’s so me and I just know I’d be perfect. I really feel just like giving up this whole acting business for keeps. It’s so unfair. It sucks. In fact the whole world sucks.”The distraught young would-be actress lamenting her failure to even be considered for the big part is a familiar movie scene. We all know of course, she will get a second chance, and become a great star, only later to fall from grace because of some personal weakness.
Real life too is often like that. We start off with fairly modest hopes. The young athlete dreams of representing her college in the regional school games. There are the almost expected disappointments, but eventually there she is, school champion in her sport. More hurdles to overcome, sometimes literally, and now her goal is nothing less than becoming the national champion. Later still, her big dream is being chosen for the Olympics, and finally only a gold medal will satisfy her ambition.
All very praiseworthy we might say. Great example of dedication. Of pursuing a dream and making it come true. After all, as that song from the musical South Pacific reminds us,
“You got to have a dream,
If you don’t have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?”
Yes indeed, but along with those dreams comes the inevitable disappointments, and they can be emotionally devastating. Disappointment is very personal. We alone can experience that raw feeling that triggers everything from complete loss of self esteem and confidence to a sense of shame and inadequacy. We did our best, but we were simply not good enough. The big D takes over and its often very difficult to shake off.
We could of course try to avoid disappointment by simply not wishing for anything _ “If I let myself want that, I might not be able to get it and that would be terrible! So better not wish for it or desire it. Its my desire that is the problem.” Ambition, having that dream is actually fine. Hopes and dreams are the stuff of progress, of life itself. The trick is recognising disappointment for what it is and learning how to deal with it.
Because disappointment is so personal, it is for us alone to deal with it. We have created a certain expectation, sometimes to the extent that we imagine how things will be when our expectations are fulfilled. “When I get that job, I’ll be able to afford a new car, and later a new apartment. My whole life will change for the better. I can’t wait to be able to show the neighbours how well I’m doing.” Big expectations, big disappointment when unfulfilled.
Dealing with disappointment our unfulfilled expectations is a tough job. Even when we tell ourselves, “Oh well, I probably would have not fitted in anyway and it would have meant a long drive each day,” we’re still upset and all those negative emotions continue to nag, especially in our quiet moments. So how do we deal with the big D? Like all challenges it’s best met head on. Here we must remember that we created these expectations in our own mind and they are just that _ expressions of our own desires. We created them, and it is we who can control them.
Personal relationships are a fertile area for disappointment. Emotions take over from commonsense. Caution is smothered by the thrill of the chase and by the promise of eventual conquest. Disappointment is on the back-burner until it appears like the proverbial thunderbolt. “You are married already! Why didn’t you tell me?” That’s a special type of disappointment and it can be very hurtful. Again though, its all about expectation. Deal with that effectively and disappointment will be seen for what it is: a reminder to us that while we can work to make our dreams come true, we must also be aware that dreams come with disappointment built-in.
There is nothing wrong with disappointment. Really look forward to things with the knowledge that disappointment is right there in the heart of all experience. It is wonderful! It hurts! But does that matter? Disappointment doesn’t have any power to harm or destroy us. Only our fear of disappointment can do that.