Life is one long, steady disappointment. This dawns on most people by their thirties. Childhood is all potentiality. The teenage years are all angst—but even angst betrays some hope, since it is only quiet outrage that things could be better. A person can still carry into his twenties the illusion that the world will soon blossom. Not until his thirties does a person realize that much of what’s coming won’t be better than what has come. The forties, fifties, and on often only reinforce Alexander Pope’s infamous beatitude, “Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” To live is to be disappointed.
So cheer up. Oddly enough, disappointment can be an indicator you are seeing the world correctly. No one enjoys feeling disappointment. In itself, disappointment is akin to the sadness of loss, and ultimately we were not designed for it. But like all emotions, disappointment is a gauge of how a person perceives his life—what he believes about it and wants from it. When you’re living in a broken world, sometimes believing and wanting the right things means you’ll be disappointed.
The Experience of Disappointment
Human beings are capable of disappointment because they are capable of having expectations. We were made to dream of better days. Every Cleveland sports fan knows this. So does every acne-faced teenager, every sleepless parent of a newborn, every young professional clawing for a career, every recent divorcée sitting in a house now quiet. All of us cast in our minds a widescreen projection of a better reality to move around in, free of the most painful parts of the present. We live in a desert but imagine a garden.
Disappointment is what we experience when that garden never blooms. Of course, we know it won’t blossom immediately. But maybe it will incrementally? Maybe in the next phase of life? Maybe around the next bend? All of these maybes are the projectors on the screen of the mind. What they project we could call expectations.
We experience disappointment as a sense of loss when reality fails to meet our expectations. The key words there are reality and expectations, and both of these terms are charged with theological meaning.