In less than six months the grumbles began about Pastor Frank. In less than a year the church fired him. Frank was devastated. He had sincerely believed God had called him to that church. At the service marking the beginning of his ministry, the whole congregation had stood and declared they also believed his appointment was God’s will. Frank felt affirmed. This was where he was meant to be. Now he was fired, leaving him shocked, distraught, self-esteem damaged, doubting his abilities and doubting his calling.

Of course, the church saw things differently. Their senior officer told me, ‘Frank is a good man, but he’s a terrible preacher. People were leaving. The church might have closed. What else were we to do?’ Had they not heard him preach before he was appointed? ‘He must have given his one good sermon,’ the leader replied.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of that situation, Frank was crushed by the criticism and rejection he experienced. After months of agonising thought, he took another job. It was not as a pastor.

Many experience severe disappointment, and it comes in many guises.

George was madly in love with Wendy. They got engaged, discussed the wedding plans and everything they could think of about their future married life. Then for six months George went to Africa on a humanitarian mission. He and Wendy wrote constantly, but half way through his mission George noticed the warmth had gone from his fiancée’s  letters. When he was home, Wendy met with him only once, handed back the engagement ring, and told him they must go their separate ways. George never saw her again. ‘What did I do? Why did I deserve this?’ he asked. He never got answers. Everything he’d anticipated about his future was gone. All that was left was the deepest of deep disappointments.

Viv was probably the cleverest pupil in my high school class. If there were subjects in which she wasn’t first, she was at least second or third. Everyone knew she’d excel in her final exams, go on to university, then move into a fabulous career. None of that happened. Viv left school as soon as the law allowed, long before those final exams, and got a modest job in an office. Why? Viv left because she was mocked. She was less than five feet (1.5 metres) tall, and teased mercilessly by fellow pupils and even by some teachers. When Viv stood up in class, someone would shout ‘Stand up Viv’. At other times someone would ask ‘Is Viv not here today?’ when it was perfectly obvious she was present. As she left school for the final time, Viv left a message. It read, ‘I couldn’t take it any more…’

Criticism, mocking, rejection, and disappointment may not be the very worst experiences someone can have, but their cruelty eats away at our inner spirit, destroys confidence and injures us for years. Maybe forever.

So, how do we deal with disappointment and similar blows to our inner spirit? It’s easy to give trite answers, but they are always unsatisfactory. If anything I write seems like that, I apologise. I do understand that getting past deep disappointments is no easy matter.

Disappointment is normal

In 1975, the rising star of American golf, Tom Watson, arrived in Carnoustie, Scotland, to play for the first time in the Open Championship (one of the four golf ‘majors’). He was used to the soft, flat fairways of America, but he’d never played on a British links course.[1] Watson began a practice round, and hit a glorious drive straight down the first fairway. He strode after his ball, but couldn’t find it in the centre of the fairway, nor anywhere close by. After ten minutes he finally located it in the edge of the rough. His ball had hit a mound, and ricocheted sideways. Watson was not impressed. Feeling cheated, he said later: ‘I didn’t believe that was the way golf should be played’. But before the main tournament began he accepted that this is how links golf is played, and that bad bounces were normal. Watson not only won that 1975 Open Championship on his debut, but won the tournament again another four times.

The very biggest disappointments in life are not matters we just shrug off. But more moderate disappointments are normal. We fail a driving test, we scrape the car against a wall, we do poorly in an exam, we’re not picked for the football team, a friend breaks her promise, our pay rise never materialises, the special meal we planned becomes a burnt offering, and so the list could go on. Life is not a soft, flat fairway. It’s one with humps and hollows that throw us aside. This is normal. And it’s survivable, as you’ll see by reading on.

Disappointment develops resilience

To be resilient doesn’t mean you don’t get hurt or discouraged when things go wrong. But it does mean you’ve learned how to pick yourself up and move forward beyond those troubles. In fact, it’s the problems and disappointments in life that create and build resilience in our lives.

Here’s a very personal story. My mum died in her mid-50s, and dad remarried several years later. Anne, his second wife, was a lovely, kind lady, and for many years they enjoyed each other’s company, took short vacations, spent time with family, and pondered the mysteries of their newspaper’s daily crossword. Then Anne had a stroke, and was paralysed down one side of her body. Her speech wasn’t bad, but walking unaided was near impossible. Anne became depressed, and gave up on physiotherapy because she didn’t believe she could get better. I visited as often as I could and supported my dad as he cared for Anne. He and I talked about what more could be done for Anne, but it seemed all that could be done was being done. Anything more had to come from inside Anne. But dad told me Anne had never been ill in her whole life, never faced a difficult health issue, never had to fight for healing. Now, devastated by her stroke, it seemed she’d no inner resource of strength to draw on. Anne never recovered.

Years ago I read the story of a man watching a moth freeing itself from its chrysalis, the little cocoon in which it first grew. The man saw the moth push open a small opening in the chrysalis’ wall, then struggle to widen it. But the moth couldn’t seem to open the hole any further. So the man took fine scissors, cut the slit wider, and the moth flopped out. It lay free from its chrysalis and the man waited for it to stretch its wings and fly off. But the moth didn’t. It couldn’t. It just lay there, and, with dread, the man realised that the struggle to free itself was what gave strength to its wings. He’d taken away its struggle, and the result was that moth would never fly.

The struggles of life build our strength. Yes, they’re painful, and yes, we wish they never happened, but they create in us the resilience we need to get through life.[2]

Disappointment can be an opportunity for something new

One of the most common things said by employers to someone being fired is: ‘This might be a really good thing in your life’. Not one person being fired ever agrees. And I could agree only by emphasising that word might – yes, it might be good, but it isn’t automatic.

When might disappointment be good? It depends on things like these:

  • What you’re leaving – such as getting out of a job in which you were not succeeding, or out of a relationship that would never work out well.
  • What new opportunity opens up – some of the best outcomes I’ve known following career disappointment have come when someone retrained for a high demand job.
  • What attitude you take about your future – being numbed by what you’ve lost means missing out on what you could gain.

My pastor friend Murray strove for years to save a dying church. It had been declining for years before Murray became pastor, but he’d believed he could turn things round. He gave his best but the problems were deep-rooted in attitudes and personalities, and numbers kept dwindling. So did Murray’s spirits. I met with him many times, and watched optimism turn to pessimism, and brightness drift into depression. ‘Murray,’ I said, ‘it’s time to move somewhere else’. He wouldn’t listen, saying ‘A captain goes down with his ship’. Yet, strangely but very timely, soon after that another church asked him to consider becoming their pastor, and Murray accepted. He left the failing church with a heavy heart, but poured himself into his new work. And, wonderfully, Murray flourished and so did that church. He’d been desperately disappointed he couldn’t save the first church, but its problems were probably more than any pastor could solve. Freed from those issues, Murray’s gifts were exactly what the new church needed. It grew and Murray’s self-confidence as a minister grew. And he had a great ministry.

There are new opportunities after deep disappointment, providing we’re open to them.

Disappointment with how we’re treated needn’t be passive

I told a little of Viv’s story earlier. To this day it makes me sad that teasing and bullying stopped her completing her school education and pursuing her career dreams. As far as I know she never complained to a teacher or the school’s head teacher. I understand that. A 14 or 15-year-old feels powerless. But I wish she had. I wish she’d got her parents banging on the head teacher’s door, demanding action to stop anyone giving their daughter a hard time. I never teased Viv – honestly I didn’t – but I wish I’d realised how hurt she felt about what others said, and that I’d done something to protect and encourage her. People like Viv need allies. It might have helped.

Unfairness, prejudice, bullying must be called out for the wrong they are. Some things in life that hurt and disappoint us can’t be changed and we must accept them (as I’ll write in a moment). But we can’t and shouldn’t accept everything. There are times when such a wrong is being done we must push back.

Disappointment with ourselves is especially difficult

The Greek word akrasia means ‘weakness of will’, ‘acting against our own considered judgment’. Philosophers debate how we can choose to do what is not in our interests to do.

Whatever conclusions philosophers reach, akrasia is a reality for all of us. We do things we know aren’t right or helpful.

Everyone has their own list of akrasia experiences. For some it’s when they didn’t try their hardest. Or betrayed a confidence. Or failed to keep a promise. Or did something morally or legally dreadful.

What disappoints us about akrasia failures is that we knew we were doing wrong. We could and should have acted differently. That makes it hard to excuse ourselves.

But what we can’t excuse we can forgive. I missed sociology lectures when I was first at university, not because I disliked the subject but because the lectures were too early in the morning so I stayed in my bed. I was disappointed in myself, but instead of holding on to that disappointment, I chose to change. I bought a loud alarm clock, went to bed earlier, and rolled out of bed as soon as the alarm sounded. But none of that would have happened if I hadn’t forgiven myself. Regretting about yesterday stops us rejoicing in what today brings.

Disappointment sometimes has to be met with acceptance

If disappointment is a normal human experience, it can’t always be avoided. We’ll feel it whenever what we hope for doesn’t happen, or what we’ve dreaded does happen. Disappointment is an inevitable emotion, a right emotion. And, in a healthy sense, we should accept it. ‘This is how I should feel given what’s happened.’

We accept it because life is a place of hard knocks. One of the times the Commonwealth Games[3] was staged in Edinburgh, I helped out in the Games’ Village. One evening I noticed a young athlete sitting alone, looking seriously sad. We began to talk, and I learned she was a Welsh sprinter who’d been eliminated in the first heat of the only event in which she was entered. She’d dedicated her life to preparing for these Games, and in seconds her part was all over. She was very disappointed. Of course she was. In that one conversation, there was nothing I could say to ease her pain. But my hope is that before too long she understood that this was one blow in her life, and beyond it lay many good things.

We all have to do that. Every dream can’t be fulfilled. I had a flatmate who wrote letters to at least twenty senior football clubs across Britain asking for a trial. They replied. Not one club offered him a trial. He was disappointed. But clearly not everyone can be a top soccer player, or an operatic star, or a princess, or a fighter pilot, or climb Everest, or break a world record, or become prime minister or president. We have to come to terms with disappointment.

Thankfully there’s more to life than the things which disappoint us. There’s a saying ‘When God closes a door, he opens a window’. A door closing isn’t the end of opportunities. Whether or not we see those opportunities as God’s better plan for our lives, there always exists a new way which is still a good way.

Recognise that disappointments will occur throughout life. Learn from them, and let them make you stronger. Move forward, confident that beyond disappointment lies something good and fulfilling.

[1] In the UK, a links course is one built on the land lying between the sea and agricultural land, hence the name ‘links’. That land would originally have been undulating and likely unsuitable for farming.

[2] For one of the most remarkable stories of perseverance in the face of many disappointments, you should read the account I gave of one man’s life in an earlier blog. See https://occasionallywise.com/2021/05/01/when-your-car-number-plate-really-matters/

[3] The 2022 Commonwealth Games will be held in Birmingham, England, from 28 July to 8 August. Background information about the Commonwealth Games is at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonwealth_Games