Disappointment can be refined for good use. If our present reality teaches us to lament and to seek, we are well on our way through this long, steady disappointment. And in the unbroken world that awaits us, we will solidly arrive at disappointment’s end.
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.
A Theology of Disappointment
Reality is the world that surrounds us, a world that existed before any of us first took in a lungful of oxygen. The world is a given component of our experience, the context we are born into and move around in. It is beyond our control, it is outside our determination, and it operates according to laws we had no say in laying down. Reality is, well, reality. And it constantly fails to match the Eden we love to inhabit in our minds.
Reality is the world in which God placed us. It’s easy to overlook the theological significance of Genesis 2:8: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” God made Adam to be an embodied image of Him in a physical location. This world preceded Adam. It was outside his determination yet under his dominion to be the context of his obedience (1:28). Adam could not have simply lived in his head; he had to traffic in a reality outside his head.
Expectations, on the other hand, are a human response to reality; and as responses, we do have a say in them. Expectations are part hope, part prediction of what reality will be. They are part hope in the sense that they are an expectancy of good. No one is disappointed when something bad they were expecting fails to come about; instead, they experience relief. Hope is the anticipation that reality will be characterized by greater joy, greater provision, greater accomplishment, greater peace.
Adam lost his spot in an ideal reality by disobeying God, who sent him and his wife out of Eden and into the ultimate disappointment of a world stalked by death and decay (Gen. 3:8–24). A world that was once generous with fruit became hostile with thorns.