Disappointed with life
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
Earlier this week I went to the dentist because I had a sort of weird achy pain at the back of my mouth, in the top left corner, behind my back tooth. I could feel something sharp on the outside of the gum. It had hurt before and gone away, but now it was hard to open my mouth fully so I reluctantly booked to see the dentist. Turns out I have a wisdom tooth growing at a right angle out of my gum. Ten percent of it is poking out, ninety percent of it is not. I needed special x-rays at another practice, which I had yesterday, and then I will join a very long list to see someone at the hospital about whether it needs to come out or not. Now, on the whole, my teeth have served me well (in return for me looking after them I might add) and that was my first dentist appointment outside of a check-up since I had my wisdom teeth out many many moons ago. So in theory I can’t really complain about this one-off issue, but the thing was, it wasn’t a one-off in my life, it was another straw on the back of a long line of health issues and appointments and check ups and blood tests and waiting lists over the last seven years. It also came in the same week I found out my menopause specialist GP (who’ve I’ve been seeing for two years) has left the clinic and my HRT (which I’ve been slowly adjusting to and tweaking over the last 3 years) is out of stock. Life feels like a relentless allocation of small problems and bad news. Not ‘it never rains but it pours’, more ‘it just constantly drips’.
So, I find myself in a situation where I am disappointed with life (as a whole). Sure, there are many good things, and I’m trying my best to create more, but as far as the hand that life dealt, I feel like I’m not only holding onto all the two’s and three’s, but I’ve also got that stupid Joker card they give you for free, and the cards are all wet and floppy, and they smell funny.
I recently heard a podcast that was interviewing Mo Gawdat, Founder of ‘One Billion Happy’ - a movement to help one billion people to become happier after the unexpected death of his son - and he said something that struck me. He was sat in a coffee shop one day, feeling a similar way to me, and listening to SuperTramp and The Logical Song.
When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily Oh joyfully, playfully watching me. But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible Logical, oh responsible, practical And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable Oh clinical, oh intellectual, cynical. The Logical Song, SuperTramp
And he realised he was born happy, and this was the answer to his issues. We all are. Babies are happy, until something needs doing or goes wrong, then you fix it for them and they’re happy again. They get ill, but then as soon as they feel better they are happy again. We all remember being home from school sick, starting to feel better and dropping our guise by running across the room laughing at something only to hear those fateful words from a parent ‘someone’s feeling better’ and you were swiftly packed back off to school.
Mo said we walk out of happiness into unhappiness, it’s not the other way round like the world might suggest, telling us we are unhappy until we find something or do something to find happiness. He said ‘we are happy inside and then things make us unhappy.’
If you go back to childhood, you observe that if a child’s basic needs are met their default state is happy – they don’t need an iPhone, they can play with their toes and be happy. Mo Gawdat
I like this idea, it makes sense to me. Especially with my belief that we were created by a loving God, sure we are very intrigued and prone to and drawn to bad stuff as well, it doesn’t take long for a child to work out lying, but ultimately, when all is good and innocent, us humans are naturally happy. To varying degrees of course. My happy with a cup of tea and block of marzipan is not what Chris’ ‘happy’ would look like.
But what happens when tragic, awful things happen to make us unhappy? Things we can’t fix, can’t explain, that impact us greatly, and we can’t get past them? What happens to our happy then?
As I pondered on this I was once again reminded of a book I read many years ago by Philip Yancy called ‘Disappointment with God’. The book included a letter Philip had received on this subject, that really affected me and I’ve never forgotten it. In fact when I picked the book up to find it again today there was a small post-it note attached to this exact page, and when I read it again, tears welled in my eyes, as they do every time. I’ve returned to the letter printed in this book many times, and I’ll warn you up front, this touches on some very honest, deep grief. It makes me realise long before I started this blog and podcast there was always a fascination with grief for me; how people process it, move through it and experience it. This letter was from a lady called Meg Woodson, a pastor’s wife, a mother, and later a writer.
Meg Woodson had two children, Peggie and Joey, both born with cystic fibrosis. They were coughing constantly and found breathing hard and one of their mother’s jobs was to pound on their chests to clear the mucus. It was expected both children would die before adulthood. Joey did die at 12 years old, but Peggie went on through high school and then college and seemed to get stronger as time went on. Philip Yancy was one of the people regularly praying for her healing. Sadly, Peggie died at 23 years old, and after she died her mother wrote a letter to Philip, which he later found again and included in this book in Chapter 21.
I won’t read or print the whole letter, to honour the copyright but I’ll share some quotes with you. Meg started the letter with: “I find myself wanting to tell you something of how Peggie died.”
She then goes on to say that the weekend before Peggie was admitted to hospital for the last time, Peggie came home from church and copied down a quote that her minister had used, very excited about it. It was this William Barclay quote:
Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory. William Barclay
Later when Peggie was in hospital and things weren’t going well she looked around at all the contraptions she was attached to and said ‘Hey, Ma, remember that quotation?’
“...she looked around again at all the tubes, stuck the tip of her tongue out of the corner of her mouth, nodded her head, and raised her eyes in excitement at the experiment to which she was committing herself.’
The letter said that this commitment stayed with Peggie as long as she was aware of anything going on. On one of the visits from the president of her college, Peggie, too weak to talk, nodded to her mum to explain the quote and ask him ‘to pray that her hard time would be turned into glory.’
Here are some snippets from her mother’s letter:
“I was sitting beside her bed a few days before her death when suddenly she began screaming. I will never forget those shrill, piercing, primal screams. Nurses raced into the room from every direction and surrounded her with their love.”
“So, it's against this background of human beings falling apart...that God, who could have helped, looked down on a young woman devoted to Him, quite willing to die for Him to give Him glory, and decided to sit on His hands and let her death top the horror charts for cystic fibrosis deaths.”
Meg goes on to honestly muse that it doesn’t help to talk of the good that can come from pain, because if God ever intervenes in a physical process, then at every point of suffering He makes a decision to intervene or not.
‘...in Peggie’s case His choice was to let C.F. rip. There are moments when my only responses are grief and an anger as violent as any I have ever known. Nor does expressing it dissipate it.’
But Meg also says that Peggie never complained against God and it wasn’t a ‘pious restraint’ either, neither did those that lived through it with her, they felt upheld by God’s love and Meg said there was no doubting it. She talks about God’s hand on them soothing them like the nurses did with Peggie. But she still questions, how could God sit on His hands?
She ends the letter with:
‘As I think of it, I’ve never expressed all this to anyone before, for fear of disturbing someone’s faith. Don’t think you must say anything to ‘make me feel better.’ But thanks for listening. Most people have no idea how that helps.’
Philip then wrote:
‘After reading Meg’s letter, I could not work anymore that evening.’
Meg’s story even disrupted Philip’s happy that evening.
I want to say that Meg went on to write books in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s to help others with their grief, called ‘Following Joey Home,’ ‘Turn it into Glory’, ‘Making it through the toughest days of grief’, and ‘If I die at Thirty.’
I think you’ll agree if ever there were sobering words to hear or read, this is them. What do we do in life when something like this happens to wreck our happiness, and we’re left feeling grieved, hurt, forgotten, left out, or ignored, by people or in Meg’s case, the God she gave her life to?
Now if you’re like me, you sort of feel a bit of relief when you hear that Meg went on to write a book about Peggie’s story and almost find some ‘silver lining’ in it all, but that doesn’t diminish the pain we feel with her when we first read her letter, or the pain she endured every day since. I only found out she went on to write her books when putting this together and Googling her, although I’ve since noticed in Philip’s book a small caveat that says this. For years I wondered how Meg got on with life afterwards, and despite her saying in the letter how much she felt God’s love through it all, I’ve only ever remembered the awful deaths she had to endure of her children. Why? Because it’s easier to focus on the pain and the hurt and the unfairness of it all, than it is on the love, the support, the courage and endurance that also shines through the letter, now I look more closely.
How true that is in life? So often fear and disappointment trump hope, love and joy. Wrecking our happiness. We fear losing those we love, we fear watching someone leave this planet, we fear being alone, we fear getting ill, we fear the unknown, we fear the darkness, we fear not being who we believe we should be. When exposed to stories like this, we often let our fears highlight everything about it that’s awful and we apply the situation to ourselves, rather than journeying with those going through it, to give them the hope, joy and love they might need. The same is true about why people find it hard to talk to those that are grieving - the pain of imagining themselves there, is too hard to face.
If we’re honest, are our first thoughts; I wish I had known Meg so I could have done something to help, I want to tell her how courageous and extraordinary her daughter was, I want to be the nurse that tries to soothe patients going through such pain, what can I do to help others going through this? what a story of love triumphing death! Or are they; Oh my word, what if I have to go through that? I couldn’t cope with such a thing. I didn’t need to know that story. I don’t want to hear about stuff like this. Great, now that’s another fear to add to my list.
Turning it in on ourselves is an unnecessary action, because unless you have two children with cystic fibrosis in the 70’s or 80’s right now, your situation is not going to echo Meg’s anyway, but we don’t think like that.
Humans are inherently selfish, we hear a story and we put ourselves in it, when we’re not even invited in. We are attracted to things that make us fearful, putting ourselves in that boat to see how it feels, then commenting that we just couldn’t cope, and stepping back out again. The truth is, if it was your boat, you would cope. Sasha Bates in Episode 32 of The Silent Why was one half of a childless couple when she suddenly lost her husband:
You don't know what you can survive. If somebody had told me in advance what was going to happen, I would have said, 'well, I'll never survive that and I won't want to survive it. It's horrific'. I think the anticipation of something is worse than the reality in many ways because with the reality, yes, it's awful, but you do just keep putting one foot in front of the other, you do find resources within yourself, you do find the the sort of the gems from within the rubble. You do start to see the world slightly differently, to see yourself differently, to see your friends differently, to redefine what you're here for in a way. I think you do feel more grateful. …you just do, I can't really explain it other than it's one of those things that you have to go through to realise that even when you experience your worst nightmare, there are gains to be found, there are positives to come out of it. Sasha Bates, Episode 32, The Silent Why
As we know from the podcast and from Peggie’s story, faith, joy, and hope are not mutually exclusive to fear, disappointment, and sadness. They can co-exist and they pretty much always do.
So how do we do life with the disappointments and sad stories it throws at us, but still bounce back to our natural happy state?
You might think the answer ideally would be to change the story in the first place. We’d all like to change Peggie’s story if we could, to make it better, happier for us to read, easier for Meg to endure and for Peggie to go through. Peggie wanted to turn her ‘hard thing’ into glory, and she did, I bet in more ways that we’ll ever know or imagine her story has impacted thousands of people for the better. So once again I question if our motive to ‘fix’ it would be selfish? Who are we to take away from Peggie what she was praying for and desiring? In many ways I find myself envying Peggie; her determination, her courage, her drive, and her unwavering faith, all in the face of pain most of us pray to avoid. I look at her and I see a contentment, a peace and an acceptance with a life far harder and shorter than mine. And I question what I’m missing to also come to that place with my lot?
Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed. Alexander Pope
Through all my disappointment in life, through the little things that build up to make me feel an overall sadness about how things are, it largely leads me back to one thing that seems to wreck everything - expectations.
Chris and I have been exploring the freedom recently of admitting that we’re a bit disappointed with life, which isn’t an easy thing to admit because a lot of our disappointments sometimes feel like they can be traced back to our own decisions somewhere along the line. For example, I fell in love with Chris and married him, the result of that decision was that neither of us would have our own children. Now, I don’t regret any of those decisions, of course we didn’t know at the time, but it’s a confusing path to be on when you make a lot of the big decisions for your own life and then have to admit overall it’s not as you hoped it might be, even if you don’t regret things. Anyway, so even as we accept this disappointment we are forced to look at why we are disappointed and it comes back to that word again - expectations.
I know we’re not alone with this, especially in a world that increasingly paints the picture that if you’re relatively healthy, fall in love, marry, have healthy children, have a family unit around you, grow older, watch your children marry, get grandchildren and die after eighty, you’ve pretty much had the perfect life. Then throw a bit of fame, social recognition or extra money at that picture and well, you’ve officially ‘made it’.
The thing is, we can only be disappointed with life if we have built an idea of what we think life should be in the first place, something to measure it up against. C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity says this:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? C. S. Lewis
I found this profound. You only know a line is wonky, because you have a seen a straight line.
So what if we were to tear down the ideal life we imagined and expected for ourselves, the ‘perfect life’, and grieve it if we must, but accept what we are living through day-to-day as our reality and find our happiness and joy in that.
Let’s face it. No one promised you you’d get married, no one promised you you’d have a happy marriage, no one promised you’d have children, no one promised you your children would be healthy forever, no one promised you all members of the family would get on, no one promised you you’d live in a country without war, no one promised you would live a set number of years, and no one promised you great weather every year.
Whichever of those you’re clinging to, is an expectation that somehow you built up around you. And it’s becoming more and more obvious in our chats to people about loss and grief, that very few of them would ever go back and not have that person in their life, or that experience in their life, if they could avoid it completely. So if that’s how people feel about the awful things they go through, there must be something to the mindset of accepting each day as it comes, with whatever it brings, and feeling the feelings that come with it, and not having any expectations for any further ahead.
The concept of only taking one day at a time is actually Biblical, it’s not new, it’s just super hard to do. Plus, it’s made even trickier by the awful stuff that gets thrown at us and other humans and their baggage being in the world. I read something yesterday that said when we do things to please other people we give them the driving seat in our lives, and that, to me, sounds like it ends in a car crash, or at least a lot of fighting over the wheel or backseat driving.
In all the quotes I found on disappointment more often than not ‘expectation’ was lurking nearby as the cause. My husband and I heard a talk by Sheridan Voysey a few years ago where he used this expression multiples times about their journey with infertility, and then when he wrote Resurrection Year:
Expectation. Expectation. Expectation. Disappointment. Sheridan Voysey, Resurrection Year
Social media, marketing, and dare I say it, even friends and family, have contributed to us building a life in our minds that we see as expected and perfect, and any thing that deviates from this is less so and disappointing.
I’m working on being someone that can accept my situation and enjoy it for what it is, and I know this is the key, but I haven’t quite managed to do it… yet.
I am learning that it’s rare that other people can help you though this. Too often when others ‘help’ us see the good in our own lives, I find inevitably the ‘good’ they are pointing out is their conception of what ‘good’ looks like in my life, from the view of their own. For example; if their marriage is hard, they see the friendship in ours, if their house is cramped, they see the empty bedrooms in ours, if their life is hectic and messy they see the quiet and cleanliness of ours, if they’re restricted by children they see the freedom in ours. But the friendship was built through childlessness, the empty rooms were meant to be filled, the quiet is the absence of a child’s laughter or call for a parent, the cleanliness is just something to do and feel achievement through, and the freedom is nobody needing us to stay put.
Dreaming about being an actress is more exciting than being one. Marilyn Monroe
Accepting disappointment feels like a stepping stone towards accepting my life as it is and being able to move forwards. I suspect others won’t always feel this way for us and might even try to steer us away from it, wanting us to feel encouraged instead, but in my experience when I can feel the disappointment, it leads me to encouragement, when I try to force feeling encouraged or happy without feeling the disappointment underneath, I build it on bad foundations and it barely stands up for a day.
We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. Martin Luther King, Jr.
So we’re currently accepting finite disappointment.
If you’re listening to this and thinking about your own situation (because some of you will be trying to focus fixing mine and Chris’!), then I want to encourage you that you’re not alone and it’s ok to be disappointed, and feel those feelings. That’s what we’re doing. But there’s a big ‘but’: don’t stay there.
So much in the grief arena on social media nowadays seems to be coming alongside people in their grief, which is great, but then it seems to want to keep people there and there’s a danger in that. No one should be moved on before they’re ready, sure, but equally we have a responsibility to offer hope to people when they’re ready to move on. When I read a post from a childless person who has found their peace with Mother’s Day and moved beyond the pain, it gives me such a burst of hope of joy. Let’s raise up stories of hope that these markers don’t have to be forever sad, and if we’re not there yet, that’s ok, draw alongside others or allow yourself to be drawn alongside instead, but don’t lose hope and the aim of moving into hope one day in the future.
If you’re disappointed with the man or woman you married, that’s ok, own it, acknowledge it, before you find a way to move forwards - whatever that looks like for you. But you’ll be a better spouse and person by letting yourself just sit in those feelings for a bit, rather than squashing them down.
If you regret having children (yes, that’s not an easy thing to think, is it? But I’ve spoken to people who have honestly said it), own those feelings, feel it, then move forward, you’ll be a better parent for it.
If you’re disappointed you’ll never have your own children (this goes for people with other people’s children too, just because you adopt or find other ways it doesn’t mean you’re not still carrying this pain), own it, feel it, find a way forward that will bring you joy in other ways.
If you’re disappointed you didn’t become the person you wanted to be, or have the life you wanted, because of health issues, career failings, or the actions of others, allow yourself to recognise that grief and feel the sadness of it, before making a life for yourself that you enjoy.
If you’re constantly disappointed in your sports team, well then you just need to get used to that - it will never bring you joy, people!
You don’t need to express all this outwardly, I would caution you against it in most situations (unless with a professional), but write it down, think on it, give it permission to be a thought you allow in and not feel guilt over.
Disappointment is inevitable. But to become discouraged, there's a choice I make. Charles Stanley