Dealing with disappointment
Disappointment. It’s something we’re all familiar with. Sometimes we can shrug it off, but what happens when it’s related to something that touches the deepest hopes we hold in the recesses of our hearts? What happens when it’s not a situation that we’re disappointed with, but God Himself?
I’m a Consecrated Virgin, and I remember being so excited to move into my apartment in the months leading to my consecration. It was going to be our “newlywed” home, full of intimacy and quiet and the joy of finally being in my vocation after searching it out for many years. The Lord had pulled everything together. It was the perfect location, I had access to a chapel, and the rent was within my means. Plus, free parking. Which really means something in downtown Toronto.
On the day I moved in, that balloon of excitement deflated a little when I realized it hadn’t been cleaned. At all. After cleaning, settling in and getting everything unpacked, I noticed some ants. Not just a few, but a big swarm. In my bedroom. When I saw the first centipede, the remaining air from my balloon of excitement wheezed out. After I realized that my non-soundproofed bedroom was directly underneath a set of steps, and that the relationship with the landlord was going to be anything but easy, every ounce of air that had been in that balloon was gone.
I remember sitting in the chapel and letting the disappointment I had been fighting really sink in. I remember realizing that it wasn’t the situation I was disappointed in; it was the Lord. Instead of providing a place of retreat where I could be with Him in peace, He had provided bugs and noise and dirt and conflict. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from underneath me, and not just because it wasn’t what I had hoped for. It was precisely because I had recognized the beautiful desires of my heart, desires that I knew He had placed there, that I was so devastated when they were so painfully unfulfilled. I felt completely betrayed by Him, and those desires felt like a reminder of what was missing.
This disappointment was so painful because it involved my deepest identity, which is to be a Bride of Christ. Though infertility is a much different cross, I would venture to say that the depth of the pain is so powerful because it springs from a desire intrinsic to women — natural motherhood — that is given by God, and yet remains unfulfilled by Him. It’s also a pain that can be fortified month after month, with disappointment after disappointment.
In Salvifici Doloris, Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the Christian meaning of human suffering, he points out something interesting about suffering. There is a kind of solidarity and communion that we can experience with each other, especially in experiences involving similar circumstances (SD 8). This is why a ministry like The Fruitful Hollow can be so helpful. However, suffering also exists “in dispersion”, meaning that just as we are unique individuals with unique relationships with God, so too our experiences of pain are unique, and can therefore also be avenues of isolation, even among those who might be going through similar trials.
So, then, if disappointment can be this horrible experience that can be incredibly isolating, even where there is commonality to the suffering, how can we respond to it?
I’m part of a podcast on suffering and hope called “In the Thicket”, and we recently had an episode talking about disappointment (we also had an episode on infertility as well, in case you’d like to listen). Though obviously we didn’t “solve” the problem of disappointment, we did talk about some pitfalls as well as some things that we’ve found helpful in times of disappointment.
When we feel disappointed, there is sometimes the temptation to think that we’re not a “good Christian”, or that we don’t trust the Lord. Because, of course, if we did trust the Lord, then we wouldn’t feel disappointed. Right?
The reality is that we feel feelings for a reason. Feelings give us good information about things that are important to us. Grieving something that hasn’t come to fruition is not just ok, it’s beautiful and holy. Often, we need help from a spouse, close friends, or even a therapist to identify exactly what we’re feeling so that we can bring the things often associated with disappointment (shame, a sense we should have known better than to hope, thoughts of insufficiency) to the light where the Enemy can’t use them against us. In truth, our disappointment can show us the desires of our hearts, good and bad, and being in touch with those desires is a good thing so that we can respond to them with God’s grace.
Sometimes, we can go even further than denying a feeling of disappointment and instead deny that we ever had the desire in the first place. This is more common than it may seem, because when we experience deep pain, we can get pretty creative at finding ways to bury it. However, as the saying goes, “hurt people hurt people”. Our pain always comes out in destructive ways when we don’t deal with it.
In fact, keeping a stiff upper lip and denying disappointment can be a form of pride where we are expecting more of ourselves than God is expecting of us. Even if we are disappointed in God Himself, God wants to hear about it from us. God doesn’t expect us to deal perfectly virtuously with anything, because we are not perfectly virtuous. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive for holiness and participate actively in our sanctification, but it does mean that sometimes we label feeling disappointed as sinful or wrong where in reality it is simply a manifestation of a broken heart. And who knows more about broken hearts than the one whose heart was pierced for us? God is a good Father, and no good father holds their child’s limitations against them.
When we deny our desires or our feelings of disappointment, we are in some way, facing away from the Cross. It’s understandable, because the Cross is a place of pain and death, but it’s also tied to the resurrection. The Cross makes no sense without the empty tomb, and vice versa. In our lives, too, there is no Cross that isn’t tied to a resurrection. I’ll say it again: there is no Cross that isn’t tied to a resurrection. Whether that resurrection occurs in this life or the next, God has promised this.
When God spoke to Job in response to Job’s suffering, He didn’t give Him a reason for it. Rather, He reminded Job that his vision, compared to God’s, is infinitesimally small. For us, it may take our whole lives to say, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” and to really mean it, but that’s ok. There is a tension that exists between acknowledging the experience of disappointment and trusting that a resurrection will somehow come, and that’s ok. That’s the stuff of holiness.