In Praise of Disappointment

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Jun 04, 2011

"No real wrecking balls have come through my walls, but still I have within me a veritable museum of dashed dreams: near misses on life-changing jobs, rejection letters, and, of course, loved ones walking away forever."
Gordon Marino

Each week I look forward to reading The Chronicle of Higher Education, one of the most important publications for anyone wanting to know what is going on in higher education here in the U.S. or around the world. In addition to the changing issues confronting educators, I always enjoy reading the thought-provoking essays. 

On June 27, 2008 Gordon Marino, professor of philosophy and director of the library at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN wrote an article titled "In Praise of Disappointment." Its words have been echoing in my soul and it is time I let them out. 

If ever there would be a common denominator among human beings it would have to be the fact that we all face disappointment. Just recently I heard this equation: Expectation minus reality equals disappointment. 

Some disappointments resemble the gnats swirling around our sweaty faces on a hot summer day - annoying but not life altering. Other disappointments stop us in our tracks and just knock us over. Then there are those "life will never be the same" disappointments which literally beat us down and we wonder if we will ever get up again. 

Marino tells of his life as a young boxer when he was clobbered by a "marginal heavyweight contender in a sparring session. In my brain-addled state, I could only shuffle back, shake my head, and offer a silly grin of admiration at the sheer force of the punch that had all but separated me from my senses." 

He goes on to say that as "perverse as it may seem to the relentlessly positive, I have sometimes felt that way about the power of disappointment. There is not a silver lining of meaning to every cloud of suffering. It is true that some of the ordeals that don't kill us make us stronger; however, many of them leave us with a noticeable limp." 

When I first read this essay I thought it was very dark. And, in some ways I still do. But as I have pondered it, I realized there is a certain value in embracing disappointment and not fighting it or even pretending that it does not exist. 

I would love to sit down with the author and hear him elaborate a bit more. In his essay he shares some significant professional as well as personal disappointments. He describes the time his wife was recruited to a major university in Florida with a "too good to be true" promise. He took a leave of absence so they could build their dream home. They soon learned that things were not as they had been promised. They sold their house losing most of their savings on that house so they could move back north to his original post. 

Marino even addresses the quasi-antidotes for disappointment when he says, "Ah, but I'm lucky - it could have been so much worse," or "No use complaining - it doesn't change anything anyway." 

But even with those perspectives, he seems to place disappointment in a much more dominant place in his life than I do in mine. That does not mean I have not had significant disappointment over the years. I have had profound, at times almost debilitating, disappointment. But I choose not to allow disappointment to define my life. 

I certainly agree that sooner or later everyone faces disappointment. I don't think anyone should be under pressure "to powder over our scars," as Marino says. I choose not to interpret disappointment as the result of fate with a "whatever will be, will be" attitude. Instead, for me disappointment fits within the sense of Divine context and meaning framed by the Biblical words in Romans 8:28, "God works all things together for the good of those who love Him." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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