Recently, I was majorly disappointed. This is because I am a human being who lives in the real world.
When I experienced this latest disappointment, I indulged myself in about thirty seconds of high-pitched, anger and self-pity-filled, internal screaming. Then I took a deep breath and said out loud, so I had to hear it: “Well, this isn’t about you.” And then I made myself let it go so I could focus on what came next.
My housemate watched this minor drama as it unfolded and said she’s never seen anyone else deal like that. Is it that unusual? I don’t know that many people, and haven’t been around most of them when they’re having a crap day.
But hey, maybe it’s worth talking about.
Disappointment sucks. No shit, it sucks. It feels terrible. It’s a massive let down, excitement and happiness and expectation going from mach 1 to hitting a brick wall. Instant stop and total annihilation. It’s a low, awful, destructive feeling. But you know what? It’s part of life. To be blunt, it’s a major part of life.
We live in a complex world full of forces and people who are completely outside of our control. Neither the world, nor the people who populate it, exist to make us happy or make us feel good about ourselves, let alone give us what we want. So when something good we’re hoping for happens, that’s awesome. But the chance of that is just as random as something shitty and disappointing happening.
One of the things I find most comforting about the universe is that it is quite literally incapable of caring about us. If something shitty and disappointing happens, there is no malice behind it, no messed up biblical judgment. Sometimes things just happen the way they happen. And even when it involves people, I’d argue the disappointments caused by actual malicious intent are pretty rare1. People aren’t [normally] out to get you. It’s just the way they’re working things out doesn’t quite jive with what you wanted. So with that in mind, who is there to get mad or upset at, when something disappointing happens? Unless you know that someone screwed you over just to be an asshole, there is no place to direct your anger.
And maybe it’s different for other people, but for me anger without direction has always been self-destructive. It turns inward and gnaws on my heart like a wolf. It turns me into someone I don’t like.
I don’t know if I’ve had a better education in disappointment than most. I don’t think I had a particularly disappointing childhood. Maybe I’ve had a bit more experience with the sensation in recent years, since I started selling my writing. Because as a friend recently pointed out, art and disappointment are like peanut butter and jelly. You spend so much time hearing “no” that you come to expect it. Maybe that’s the shift. Maybe I’ve switched over to expecting to be disappointed, so I’m pleasantly surprised when I’m not.
But I don’t think that’s quite it. I’m not natively a pessimist. The more important lesson of disappointment is there is always life afterwards. And there is life immediately afterwards. The world does not pause on its axis, because the world does not care how badly your heart has just been broken. You still have to get up and go to work and feed the cats and interact with other human beings. Who may be sympathetic, if you’re lucky, but there’s a very set limit to how much wallowing in upset anyone is willing to hear out.
This is why, by the way, I think parents who try to shield their children from disappointment probably aren’t doing them any favors. When you’re five years old and don’t get what you want, you can get away with having a screaming meltdown, and you get the chance to then learn that when it’s all over, nothing has changed and now you feel physically awful too. A screaming meltdown is a much less acceptable response when you’re 30 years old, no matter how good you think it would feel at the time. The world will still be the same once you’re done crying, but you’ll have embarrassed yourself and probably gotten snot all over your nice shirt.
The real lesson I’ve taken from disappointment is this: You will never be able to control who and what will disappoint you, when it will happen, and how much it will hurt. The only things in the world you have any control over at all is how you deal with it and what you do next.
Which is hard. I’m not claiming it’s easy. Letting go of pain and anger and upset is never easy. If you’re incredibly lucky, maybe you can take that disappointment and make it into something greater. Maybe you can say fuck you, I know my art is worth something and turn it into determination. Maybe you can say fuck you, this isn’t how the world should be and go out there and start working for change. Maybe you can say fuck you, this is only tearing me down, and cut loose a toxic relationship. Maybe you can say fuck you, you tried to destroy me, and now I’m going to build something bigger and better and I hope you choke on it.
But those kind of disappointments? I think they’re pretty rare, to be honest.
I’m not here to preach lemons into lemonade crap, because frankly a lot of the lemons life hands you aren’t so much lemons as leaky bags of radioactive dog shit and there is nothing good to be made from them. But there is still life after, and it’s up to you to decide what to do about it. Are you going to give up on your art? Are you going to lay in bed for two days and not move? Are you going to hold onto that anger and lash out at anyone you think might be to blame? Are you going to poison your next project? Are you going to break things for the sheer pleasure of hearing them smash?
What you choose to do must be more important than the pain you currently feel. Disappointment sucks. But disappointment is also a teacher. And sometimes it teaches us more about ourselves than we ever wanted to know.
Ultimately, this is the best solution I’ve ever found: You take a deep breath. You let it out slowly. You say, “Well, that sucks. But it’s not personal.” Maybe if it’s been a particularly big disappointment, you have yourself a good cry, then go out to your favorite Tex Mex place and have disappointment fajitas and a margarita.
Then you get on with your goddamn life, because what the hell else are you going to do?
1 – Though obviously here, depending on the situation at hand we need to acknowledge the existence of institutional bias and prejudice, etc. That’s not really what I’m talking about here, but I feel it’s important to note that these are things that exist, and while not necessarily consciously malicious, will act in much the same way.