Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lessons from Disappointment

Shikata ga nai is a Japanese expression that means "nothing can be done about it," "it can't be helped," or, at its worst, "it's hopeless."

Being an optimist to the tips of my toes, in fact, being someone who sees the cup as not just half-full, but full to overflowing, I am reluctant to subscribe to such a notion as Shikata ga nai. I prefer, instead, to think of occasions that cause such feelings to arise as "Lessons from Disappointment" as compared to "Lessons in Disappointment."

Surely none of us needs more lessons in disappointment; they come unbidden and unwanted. Dreams not only haven't come true; as we grow older, we learn that some dreams will never come true. Those dreams weren't bad or unrealistic dreams. Their time has just passed. I will never be fifteen again no matter how hard I wish it. How we relate to the world is very much about how we frame our perceptions of what we see and experience. Our choice of language to express our perceptions matters.

I wasn't always an optimist. In a recent conversation with my training partner, we talked about our bouts with depression. I can enumerate mine, dating back to ages 15, 19, 23 and 27, and thankfully, stopping then, I hope, for good.

The bouts with depression at ages 19 and 23 were severe enough to make me contemplate suicide more than once. Having a child to consider, not wanting to burden my son with a mother who killed herself, was enough to hold me at the brink of despair. I have since met several people who have had mothers who suicided, and you can tell that there was a gaping hole in their growing up that left their personalities truncated. The sense of these people is quite different from other friends whose mothers died from accidents or illnesses when they were young.

My first major step to coming to health was a decision at age 26 not to retreat from Hawaii back to the mainland, from "exile" back to friends who loved and supported me, just because my husband dumped me. As I have since reflected, he never loved me anyway. He only loved the idea of me, which he wanted to capture and own, like I would somehow be an amulet against his demons. That was a problem of mine: to allow others, men in specific, to use me as a soporific for their own issues of inadequacy.

I remember thinking, "I'm an adult, I have a good job, and divorce is not a good enough reason to quit my job and run away." I was interviewed soon afterwards by the bank's CEO/Chairman of the Board as I was about to launch a new retirement savings department. His comment, which I took as a sign that I was claiming my own ground successfully, was that my divorce didn't seem to have affected my job performance. Indeed, not, since I was also going to school full-time in the evenings at the University of Hawaii, traveling by bus, bike and foot. Hard work, I contend, never hurt anyone, and it certainly fills the empty days and nights while one is regrouping from disappointment.

The second major step, which I think of as a turning point in my life, was a conscious decision at age 32 to become what I characterize as a "good person." Don't get me wrong, I wasn't a bad person before then. I just hadn't been consciously focused on making choices that represented being a good person.

The active decision to be a good person was like embracing a personal mission statement to be a good person, to be someone who intentionally turned towards the light and uplifted people, rather than someone who thought of herself first. Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World talks about "reverencing humankind," of paying attention to humans, created in God's image, and their relationship with all of Creation. It is this kind of attentiveness, focus and enfolding within myself and my life of others that my decision to become a good person was all about.

The major lessons that I have learned from disappointment are simple:

  • I get to choose how to think about the disappointment, how to frame it, and to decide its relative importance in my life.
  • Don't let someone else's angst about my disappointment become my angst. My feelings are valid just as they are.
  • There are very few decisions that must be made right this instant, and I can take some time, maybe sleep on it, before deciding.
  • Walking away from a disappointing situation, person or event is a valid choice, and I don't have to explain my choice.
  • I'm not required to be consistent, logical or right. I am required to own my choices.


PseudoPiskie said...

Mom always told us to focus on someone else rather than wallow in our own problems. There is always someone worse off whom we might be able to help. That may be why I listen to so many which a deacon friend says is my mission.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I've learned from disappointment is that when one door closes another opens with even better opportunities. Or maybe that is just my faith talking...

The Dating Optimist said...

Bravo, bravo! I stumbled upon your blog and was drawn to read it. Just wanted to say I LOVE this post and your point of view! It's all up to us, the way we view what life brings us. Like you say, it's all about owning our own feelings, our hope or disappointment. And I always get more when I ask for it all, too...



Thank you for the compliment! Coming from The Dating Optimist, that is high praise indeed.

I look forward to the publication of your book, Meeting Your Half Orange, with great interest. I believe that being upbeat is as strong an attractant as the strongest pheromone. Positive energy is like a beacon, its light meant to be shared, drawing others in.