On Disappointment

By Stephanie Johnson

I messed up. Or you messed up, or God did. Not getting the job. The engagement is broken off. I have to postpone your education. Your prayers didn't save her life.

At one point or another, I've carried these disappointments deep in the pit of my belly. Maybe you know what I mean when I say "deep in the pit of my belly": it's redhot, it's lava or lahars, it's thick and destructive, and prone to breaching my belly. The heaviness of these disappointments, some days, floods my heart and that’s when the tension of “what if” or “why this” builds to the point it almost bursts.

And that bursting seems very springlike to me. Since we’re in a season of change, in the natural world, I want to speak to this great paradox for our first week of spring in Minneapolis: while my heart is full for the first buds and the robins and freckles of the year, my whole body is heavy and sore, manifest with the worries and griefs in my soul.

What are these worries and griefs? It's about my job, and my boyfriend. It's about my plans for grad school, which would bring me a thousand miles away from my community, my church, and my family. It’s about choices: the realization, at twenty-six years old, that To Make a Choice necessarily excludes Other Choices. And there’s no guarantee that This Choice is the Right Choice. Jobs are eliminated, people fall out of love, school loads you with debt and death separates. And I don't want to sound too dramatic (buds and robins and freckles considered), but this spring, I’m experiencing a heart heavy, gut-wrenching fear about the disappointments hiding in that nebulous, capital T, capital F, The Future.

I’m not the only one aware of how Little Choices become Life Choices, and how disappointment is as much a possibility as joy. In fact, about a week ago, I opened an email from one of my best friends, A. To give you some context, A is a brilliant artist, living in a distant city and doing all the things I admire most: creating spaces for art and community and worship and healing and growth. A is deeply sensitive, and she’s tough, too; she's smart and strong and compassionate. You’d really like A. And, if you’d read the email I read a week ago, you’d know that A is feeling disappointed.

Let me explain. Despite A’s very hard work in college and grad school, and despite her very obvious gifts, she hasn't managed to find a career which allows her to do What She Loves full time. So A works part time in order to do what she loves, which is make and teach art.  In this email, A is requesting prayer and advice, because she’s feeling discouraged and direction-less.  Which, to me, makes perfect sense. Spring is that time of year when ferns wake up, and unfurl and reach out their leaves, and people are doing the same thing. And in that process, a lot of people at this time of year begin to ask, "What the hell am I doing with my life?"

This wasn't the only reason that A’s email was timely. When she asked me to tell her, as a friend, if she’s really crazy to pursue her calling, it resounded with my own roiling, achy breaky spirit. Here I was, sage advisor, struggling with those same questions about who and what I love. If the uncertainty and disappointment were Signs We Should Give Up. Which is one reason I think A is so brilliant: her vulnerability created space for me to feel my own vulnerability. And to feel is, sometimes, to know.

 So, although A received from me a very long, inspirational email, it also ended up becoming an email to myself.  As I responded to A, and considered her life, I feel such a deep respect for her choice to live every day immersed in her gifts and her values.  I see how pursues What She Loves with integrity: it means sometimes that she doesn't have a lot of money for groceries, or she’s spending time at a job she doesn’t love, or feels overwhelmed when considering The Future, this blizzard of unpromise and unknowing.

 And that, understandably, was why she'd reached out for help.  I know, with my own life, I get  scared sometimes.  I feel that if I make the wrong decision about my job or boyfriend or school, that All Other Decisions Available to Me will be closed down forever, and I'll be trapped in a future I never wanted for myself, and I’ll drown in that regret.

I couldn't see The Truth for what it was until I'd written to A. Here’s why: Seeing so clearly that A’s art and teaching is so good that it’s worshipful, to me it is clear that she should not quit in the midst of her discouragement. I see how, given the context of her life, some stability in her vocation would become the focal point to distract her from other uncertainties. Her context? She's out of school, out of a relationship, and sometimes feels out of her community. So, to have a job that allowed her to do What She Was Made to Do, and pay the groceries besides, was an extremely attractive goal.  And then, the uncertainty of all the rest of it wouldn't be so scary.

But she didn't get the job offer she was hoping for this year. She didn't find that elusive sense of security to make The Future safe and secure. And, as I wrote to her, I realized that I was hoping for almost all of the components of my life--job, school, boyfriend, community--to step up and fix my false sense of unsafety for me, too.

If I take a deep breath, and listen to my heart of hearts, I know this sense of safety is a complete illusion. Before this, I've lost jobs, and schools, and loves. I’ve attended funerals for young women.  And it hasn't been fair. So maybe this lesson I'm learning is very new, and it may change, but this is what I think I’ve learned: you don't just side-step disappointment. No choice you can make about Who You Love or What You Were Made to Do is immune from failure. But when I recognize that, I realize, for myself and my sweet friend A, that a life spent avoiding disappointment is going to bring disappointment. The pain in my belly and my heart won’t dissipate by fleeing from myself.  No.  And to cover all of the blessings in my life with fears about The Future clashes with the natural rhythm of the world: of death and inertia and scarcity melting into greenness and sweetness and life.

So I wrote springtime words for my friend A, and for me. They're not fluffy chick and chocolate egg words. But they're words for deep breathing, for floating on your back under the sky, for pressing your roots into the soil:

 As your friend, I hope you  do whatever it takes to keep doing what you are doing, what you're being called to, and to remember that you don't have to give your heart to everything you're doing, but you also don't have to give your heart away.”

I want to end this piece with an invitation into the season for you: welcome, reader, into this spring.  Welcome to this world, uncovered from snow and ice. Welcome to mud on the bottoms of your feet and sun on your cheeks. Welcome to the first and last of this day. Welcome To Love and Be Loved, with all the disappointments and joys of Unknowing, scattered together like weeds and flowers, radiant and colorful and full of life. This is all yours, and this is ours, all that we have been given, and that goes for you and for me, too.