You Can’t Always Get What You Want: Deciphering Disappointment
When I was a senior in college, my professors nominated me for a Rhodes Scholarship. I was skeptical, to say the least. I was nothing like the Harvard or Yale students who typically win the prestigious grant. I would be the first from my small, all-women’s college to apply. I came from a working-class family – from New Jersey, no less. But I was drawn in by the challenge, and the idea of two years of post-graduate study at Oxford University had its appeal.
I spent months on the application; my journalism mentor wrote a feisty letter portraying me as the wrong-side-of-the-tracks candidate who deserved a shot; my professors held mock interviews and talked strategy. To my great surprise, I made it into the state finals in Massachusetts. I started to really want the thing. And to be very, very nervous.
I remember the cocktail party with the selection committee and the other candidates, in a burnished Beacon Street brownstone, where, seeking a port in the storm of my mounting panic, I spent a ridiculous amount of time talking to the bartender, who I knew from my part-time job as a cocktail waitress. Five minutes into the intimidating interview with the selection committee the next day, I knew I was cooked. I waited with the others all day, nursing my nausea, until at last we were called back into the interview room and the winners were announced. Smiles, applause, handshakes, the palpable sensation of the majority of us holding on for dear life. Back out in the frosty December air, I took my fellow losers to the bar I waitressed at, which was just a few streets away. I can see us now – half a dozen very bright people in smart suits, sitting around a sticky wooden table in the Eliot Lounge, sipping cocktails without tasting them.
I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK
These days, disappointment comes up a lot in my work. I often find it lurking behind clients’ fatigue, lack of motivation, even depression: a time, or a series of times, when they wanted something and it didn’t happen, and they formed conclusions about themselves or the world because of it.
Some people conclude that something’s wrong with them – as if your unmet desire proves something bad about you. You’re unloveable, you’re missing some important ability or quality, you’re too __________ or not _________ enough. There’s an extra layer of pain beyond the sadness of the letdown. If every disappointment adds a log to the bonfire of self-criticism, pretty soon you’ll stop gathering wood altogether. You won’t act on your desire, or you’ll become fuzzy about what it is that you really want, just to avoid that pain.
Some people conclude from their disappointment that something’s wrong with the world. You dared to dream, you reached out to grab the brass ring, and look what happened: life shot you down, slapped your hand, pulled a fast one. You were deceived! It’s unfair! If you interpret disappointment this way, you’re likely to close up like a fist. Blame will come and curdle the beauty and energy of your desire. You will either stop wanting things or want them with such venom, so ready to be tricked, that you’ll desire with a hard heart, which is like striding into the ocean in full armor. In the aftermath of my Rhodes attempt, I was furious with my professors, feeling they’d set me up for a hard fall. I felt duped, and in the brashness of my youth I told them so. “You’ll feel differently some day,” one of them said, enraging me further. But she was right. My teachers’ role was not to protect me; quite the contrary. How can you learn anything, how can you live, if you believe a safe space is your due? They were doing their job, and today I can actually thank them for putting me in “harm’s way.” Quotation marks because nobody died. I just tried, and failed, and it hurt.
Desiring is a kind of love, and as such comes with built-in pain (no extra charge! life throws that in for free!) — for the simple reason that we are not eternal, and our existence is one of constant change. Once you admit that you want something, you put yourself at risk to suffer its loss. You may never attain it. You may lose it to illness, death, or other circumstances beyond your control (which is most of them). Your desire itself might change: maybe you grow bored, maybe you have a conflicting desire that forces you to make a choice. But our great folly, our most beautiful, holy folly as humans is to want anyway, to continue to desire in the face of all this finiteness.
So is there a better way to handle disappointment?
- Be aware of the conclusions you’re drawing from your experience. Are you blaming yourself unnecessarily? Are you blaming others? Life in general?
- Don’t pretend it’s ok. The sadness is real. The frustration is real. Don’t deny them. They’re there because you had the courage to love.
- Be honest. If you made a mistake, look at it. It’s the best way to navigate: adjusting your path as you go – now a few degrees west, now a few degrees east. You do this by admitting and learning from your mistakes.
- Look around. Sometimes we’re so busy crying over our spilt milk that we don’t see the ice cream life is holding out to us. This relationship, this audition, this possibility didn’t work out as you’d hoped. But if you let go and stay open, something unexpected may appear….
Back in the summer when I might have been packing for Oxford, I went to Poland instead. I tried to wrap my tongue around the consonants of my ancestral, lullabyish language. I listened to the trumpeter’s forlorn call from the tower in Krakow’s Rynek Glowny. I fell a little bit in love with my brown-eyed guide, and became lifelong friends with my roommate. I took a series of increasingly dubious trains from Warsaw to the border town of Bialystok, where I met mysterious relatives and drank vodka and ate kielbasa and drank vodka and dandled babies and drank vodka. I’m sure Oxford would’ve been a wonderful experience. It just wasn’t the one I had.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management. Her latest series of workshops combine conscious breathing and expressive writing to explore life’s juicy themes. Join her on April 23rd for Sunday Labs: Desire.