To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Disappointment is an experience we all go through at some time or other in our lives. While disappointment is a form of suffering, it is not the acute, dramatic, heart wrenching extreme painful form like sudden bereavement, or betrayal or torture or persecution. (For more on that type see here).

Instead disappointment is more subtle and insidious. But it is just as challenging. Like a hidden cancer under the surface it can eat away and destroy our sense of joy or wellbeing. It is linked to a general sense of frustration with life. Maybe there is a mild depression or even a root of anger, cynicism or bitterness.

Disappointment can be seen as a product of affluence and having an abundance of choices and opportunities (If you are reading this on a computer or smartphone, then that includes you!). The truth is we have privileges and possibilities that are beyond the wildest imaginations of people of previous generations. But it doesn’t feel like that. We have a tendency to say something along the lines of, ‘Yes I know I should be thankful, but….’ It’s what you say to yourself or others after that ‘but’ is the disappointment we are talking about.

John Hindley in his book ‘Dealing With Disappointment: How To Find Joy When Life Doesn’t Feel Great,’ defines disappointment as “What we experience when we expect satisfaction and this satisfaction is denied.” John goes on to give the almost banal example of coming home from a long day’s work expecting his family to welcome him and finding that they are out somewhere. So he feels disappointed – he expected a certain satisfaction and it was denied. There is certainly nothing earth shattering about that.

Disappointment is that sense my life is ok, my marriage is ok, family life is ok….. even worse I have achieved my dreams and I am still empty and unsatisfied.

I remember in my own life how I acutely felt that in the summer of 2001. I had just been confirmed in my job as a consultant psychiatrist. I had reached the top of the career ladder after a six year medical degree and 11 years of work and study. I was happily married with the joyful arrival of our third child. I was actively involved in church leadership and ministry. On the surface everything looked so good. If you had asked me I would have said yes there is a lot to be thankful for. But (there was a but) yet the biggest thing I remember feeling at that time was a profound sense of emptiness, which was so disappointing.

Unchecked there are three main dangers of disappointment:

Despair and a general sense of hopelessness.
The writer Thoreau wrote about how many people “live lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside of them”. Perhaps this is the chronic long term view of disappointment where as we get older we give up on our dreams and ambitions, leading to a life of resignation and cynicism about almost everything. In the more acute form it can follow success and achieving all that you  ever wanted. An example of that is the rugby player Jonny Wilkinson who after scoring the winning drop goal in 2003 to dramatically give England the World Cup trophy in 2003 suddenly found behind all the euphoria and celebration a great emptiness. He wrote in his autobiography, ‘Tackling Life,’ “Within hours of that last kick I was tumbling out of control….I am only as good as my last kick….I was afflicted with a powerful fear of failure and did not know how to free myself from it. The better things were the more I had to lose.”

That is to centre my life around superficialities where the most exciting thing in my life is TV, Netflix binges, drink or the next holiday. Of themselves there is nothing necessarily wrong with these things. But if that is what my life is centred around then that can become dangerous. The risk is I escape into another identity, or an alter-ego. Rather than face the reality of my current situation, I escape into a fantasy world, centering on my desires and wants. This can go on to include addiction to pornography or sliding into an adulterous affair. Here is how John Hindley puts it in his book:

“Perhaps the most common way we escape, though, is not to create an alter-ego, but to live for short moments and just get through the rest. I have friends who book their next holiday the moment they get home. They constantly talk about holidays; they have the photos on their screensaver and on their walls. They truly live in those two, three or four weeks a year, and the rest of the time is just in-between time, doing what must be done to get back to the beach, the ski slopes or the trail.
Or maybe we do the same week by week, using entertainment as our escape. The next episode can become the exciting part of life, the purpose of the day just to get through the 9-5, get the kids to bed, and then put the box set on….The highlight of my weekend easily becomes the film I saw on Saturday night and not the Jesus I saw on Sunday night.”

Loss of perspective.
The risk is I lose the big picture of who I am and what my life is ultimately about. I become centred in on myself and how I am feeling to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. Life then just becomes all about me with no greater or deeper story than my wants and desires. It is rather like the metaphor of standing by the beach staring at a pebble in my hand. By just staring a the pebble I lose sight of the vast ocean in front of me.

in the next blog post we will unwrap how to handle these three dangers that can come from disappointment. We will do this by continuing our podcast discussion with the author John Hindley from his book, “Dealing With Disappointment.”

For now what do you understand by the dangers of disappointment?

Our previous discussion, Podcast #032: How To Know Joy When Life Feels Tough can be accessed here.