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Disappointment

We experience disappointment when things don’t turn out as we wanted, imagined or hoped. It is quite hard to get past the feeling, especially when we’ve invested a lot in a particular outcome and it doesn’t materialise. I suppose ideally the answer is not to invest in a particular outcome – just do what you have to do and stay in the moment of doing it without projecting forward what might follow or result from it. But it’s difficult to do that, and it hurts when it doesn’t work out, particularly at the time we realise that we are just not going to get our desired outcome when we want it. I used to think T S Eliot had encapsulated what life often seemed to be all about, with his:

Man’s life is a cheat and a disappointment;

All things are unreal,

Unreal or disappointing… (“Murder in the Cathedral”)

But generally the feeling passes, usually because life doesn’t stop; it continues and whatever it was that was disappointing becomes one of those things you see in the rear view mirror – eventually it is gone. Often we look back on those disappointments and see them differently, either as lucky escapes, or simply as things that were not so bad. This is not just a “Pollyanna” attitude of wanting to find something to be glad about; it is just a perspective that time and distance tend to lend. I look back at some disappointments with sheer gratitude (admittedly some time later!) when I am able to see more of the picture than I could at the time, and I am genuinely able to think “thank goodness I didn’t get that job”, “how lucky I was that that situation didn’t work out”, “how amazing that I should have gone from feeling so wretched to feeling so much better, despite what I thought I’d lost!”

I tend to avoid the explanation that whatever it was “was meant to be” (or otherwise), because for me it doesn’t lead anywhere – it is conjecture, post hoc explanation, a case of finding something that fits after the event and seems to make sense of what happened, insisting on believing that it was part of some divine plan. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that – I’m just saying it doesn’t work for me. I would rather look at the reality now, what is, what has happened, rather than fantasise about what might have been. I’m not sure that fantasising about what might have been makes people happy because there is so much regret and wistfulness involved – it focuses on loss, not real loss, because it is the loss of something they never had, but perceived loss. In other words, I think it involves an avoidable feeling of loss. There is enough of the other variety – we don’t need the avoidable kind as well.

When I experience disappointment I think the most useful thing to do is to try to feel the feeling – there is no point in pretending to myself that I’m not disappointed if that is how I feel – and then to try to let it go on the basis that I don’t know what happened is not for the best – I am literally, at that particular point, not able to judge. Maybe Eliot was right all the time: he went on to say,

All things become less real, man passes

From unreality to unreality.

My experience has tended to be that generally when we look back on our disappointments we reckon that what happened was somehow for the best – we just couldn’t see it from where we were sitting at the time, so we couldn’t see that the disappointment was just another bit of unreality (and it would pass).

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