The Nature of Disappointment

As we enter the holiday season with anticipation, there are times when we will also feel, well… disappointed. How do we honor disappointment without being bound by it? Dan and Becky Allender talk through the concept of disappointment, how the body reacts when faced with disappointment, and the ways in which we can tend to our disappointments and still find hope.

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Episode Transcript:

Dan: Well, Thanksgiving is over and we have a few things to say about that. But before we step further in, welcome my beloved wife. So good to have you on this podcast again.

Becky: Oh, it’s great to be here.

Dan: And we’re gonna talk about, one of our less favorite topics, and that’s… disappointment.

Becky: Disappointment.

Dan: Let me set the context. And that is, I don’t think you can go through the holiday process from Thanksgiving through the madness of the next number of weeks as we approach December 25th, the advent season, the complexities, the end of the year. It really is, in some ways, both stunning, beautiful. We get to celebrate very, particularly the incarnation, but it’s also culturally and in so many ways, familially a time where if you don’t address the reality of disappointment, it can, it can take you out. And what we hope to do is not to create more despair, not create more complications, but at least to be able to say, how do we approach this season where, because the anticipation, and in some ways expectations are high, it is, necessarily then a context in which, disappointment is likely going to be experienced. And if we can just put a few words to the nature of disappointment, what happens in the body and the heart and relationally, we hope to, in some sense, not so much remove disappointment from you, but to better prepare ourselves and, you to make just sweet use, sweet participation of this season. So to begin, how, how was Thanksgiving for you? My love?

Becky: Oh, Thanksgiving was great. We were at our daughter’s home and our son’s family was there as well as her family. And then our daughter-in-law’s sister and her daughter. We had a great time.

Dan: It was, it was really a sweet time. But you know, when it was as good as it was, it made it harder to have our daughter or son-in-law, and two granddaughters not present. It just that absence felt, for me, more acutely aware because, at least this is one of the first Thanksgivings that we have not all been together. And I know a lot of families just do not have that privilege of being all together. But that, that was one. Any, any other disappointments that came up?

Becky: Um, no, except the food was so good. We both ate more than we should have.

Dan: Okay. So I was a bit disappointed in how much pecan pie you ate.

Becky: Oh, okay. Cause then you got less, less.

Dan: I’m kidding. But I think overall what we can say is we didn’t have to prepare a lot for disappointment. There was just a, a sweetness. But I think even having had conversations about disappointment before we actually entered into this season was a little bit of a protective shield in a way that allowed me a little bit better, amplitude to be able to address it. Well. How, how did those conversations help you before we dive into this?

Becky: Oh yeah. No, I think it’s really helpful to just name that, it’s the human experience. So especially when you go to a holiday season, there’s so much in your memory, from childhood through current to even worry about things in the future. So it’s good to, I think, get it out on the table and discuss it a bit.

Dan: Yeah. I think the thing I walked away from our encounter, I wanted to ask everyone those two questions. The question of what has surprised you and also what has stretched you, through this season. And what I found was, you know, it wasn’t the richest conversation every occasion, and I could have wanted more, but I also know I was actually hoping someone would return and ask me.

Becky: Wow.

Dan: I think that’s one of the experiences in our family, but actually pretty pervasively that if you are at least a significantly curious person about other people’s worlds, oftentimes the same level of mutuality seldom gets returned. And I just became more aware of, oh my gosh, I really want, you know, my son-in-law, my daughter-in-law, and my own children, to be more curious. And again, it’s a lot of kids, it’s a lot of food, it’s a lot of commotion. There are ways to mitigate disappointment, but I think that’s one of the concerns I have is that many of us sort of rid ourselves of desire in order to tamp down the possibility of disappointment. And I walked in, to this really sweet time hoping for more, not experiencing a lot, but having still a, a really good interaction with everyone. So it’s that tension that I think for many of us, we work to avoid by making sure our desires are not too high.

Becky: Yeah. And I just think the person you are, number one, a psychologist. Number two, you had a role with your parents and grandmother to keep them happy, to keep them engaged. So you did that through storytelling, but also, I’m sure you were curious with them as well. I mean, children usually aren’t that curious about parents or grandparents, but given the smallness of your family unit, I think that’s just more in your bones than it is in mine. So I’m sorry that you have to grieve that a bit.

Dan: Well, and even as you say that, I’m like, oh yeah, that’s true.

Becky: Yeah, totally. Think about that.

Dan: Yeah. I mean, in some ways, holidays, particularly Thanksgiving and then Christmas as the son of a baker, where I would say, as I remember my dad saying this, 65 to 70% of his yearly income came as, a byproduct of November and December sales.

Becky: That’s incredible.

Dan: So we were in, I was in the bakery almost every weekend, as we got closer to Thanksgiving, you know, that Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I would go to work with him and then go to school, and then sleep the remainder of the day and go back again. So I don’t have like this history of Thanksgiving and Christmas having anything other than a sense of exhaustion, hard work, pressure, fear regarding something of the financial wherewithal. So even coming into this season, I have to be aware I’m bringing lots of my childhood either anticipation or disappointment.

Becky: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, I do too. I think that was a big deal when we were young parents, I was always angry if we weren’t at home or disappointed, you could say strongly disappointed with the options to go to a Christmas Eve children’s service. It nothing could compare to Trinity United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio, with the grandeur, the holiness, the beauty, the…

Dan: The live nativity scene.

Becky: Well, yeah, they had that. And then I was singing in the choir. There was like three choirs and oh, the holly, everything was gorgeous.

Dan: So if we can begin to talk about the nature of disappointment, it is that disparity between expectation, demand, desire, and again, those are important words cause they’re not all the same you can expect, but that’s always the rising of desire. But so often expectation slides pretty quickly into that demand. It has to be this way. And as desire/expectation becomes demand, then when the outcome is nothing close or only so slightly close to what you desire, that disparity is what we know creates some degree of heart sickness.

Becky: Yeah. And that’s why I actually have, um, embroidered this Proverbs 13:12 hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. And, you know, go back to that, childhood Trinity Methodist Church. I just, I felt it in my bones when the whole congregation would sing Christmas carols. And, and then the fact that as a 40 year old mom, there was just, we didn’t even go to Christmas Eve service. So, I was heartsick, a lot of Christmas eves, which is really sad to think about.

Dan: Well, and it’s really important to hear that disappointment actually is a physical experience. And a lot of the research that’s been done over the last number of years into this has actually accentuated our understanding that when you feel disappointed, there’s some very significant things happening in the brain.

Becky: Yeah. Well, I guess what happens, there’s, well there’s two things that you need to be happy, serotonin and dopamine, and when disappointment comes, both of those decrease through those neurotransmitters. So, without the dopamine serotonin, we, our body, our mind, we feel it. It’s a physical, thing that goes on within us.

Dan: Well, and not that it’s that important, but to know that there’s actually a portion of the brain called the habenula where, it is our reward center where when things go as we desire, we have that experience of dopamine and serotonin rising. When we experience disappointment, what they have discovered is that there are actually, in one sense, a neurotransmitter process that has a kind of contrary valence, a contrary movement. One is it heightens our desire. And when desire is heightened, we have that experience of dopamine and serotonin rising. But with disappointment, they crash quickly. And as that result of this, like rise and fall almost simultaneously, you literally experience in your body something that’s not there necessarily with what generally is called emotional wounds. Because when you really do feel hurt, somebody’s really virtually stabbed you in the back. There has been some great loss. Our bodies produce endorphins and it doesn’t take away the pain, but it does sort of modulated by about five or 10%. But with this disappointment, this to me is just fascinating. With disappointment, our body doesn’t produce endorphins. So you’ve got this crash, the rise, the fall, the experience in your body of sickness, but no endorphins. And you know, part of my question is Jesus. Yeah. Like why, what, what’s going on that our bodies are not producing something to help us in the middle of that, experience? Well, but I think it’s important to, again, underscore is sickness.

Becky: Yeah. Well, I think we have to think about it too. If we had those happy endorphins, when we are disappointed, we would be outta sync with our own being, our own body, our own minds. And so, I mean, so that’s why I think God did that.

Dan: Well, I’m glad you do.

Becky: Well, don’t you see the problem that would be if, you kept having those happy endorphins when someone tells you a really sad thing, like you would be kind of a strange dude. Yeah.

Dan:I’m not gonna claim I’m not. But let’s just say again, notice that at least with the research seems to indicate as that generally speaking, emotional wounds, which go beyond the word disappointment. Like when you’ve been betrayed, when you have experienced significant powerlessness, our bodies do seem to produce something that ameliorates that that suffering. But with disappointment, the body’s not producing endorphins. And as a consequence, when we come back to the proverbs passage, you know, hope deferred makes the heart sick. It really is the word illness. And so to tend to our body in the midst of an illness in some sense, requires more of us because our body isn’t producing endorphin, we need to be even more aware that disappointment, because so often we just roll by it. Like, oh, well, whatever, I didn’t think it was gonna work out to begin with. All those categories really keep us from tending to our body and tending to our heart in the midst of it. Particularly in the contrast that a longing fulfilled, I mean, you can’t have a stronger phrase, it’s a tree of life. I mean, it is back to the image of, the Eden, but also of the new heavens and earth in terms of the 12 trees that lined the boulevard, giving off not only fruit, but it says every leaf is part of the healing of the nations. So, I mean, this is a powerful picture of. When we do have things that really do fulfill what we have desired, there’s something in the body that responds with life itself. And if we can contrast this, when you have hope deferred, it’s a little taste of death. And that heart sickness is a very central part that needs, again, to be honored. I think that research in terms of the habenula is a really important category that, that ought to make our disappointment something even clearer to attend to.

Becky: Yes. And also, you had mentioned the thalamus was the reward center of the brain. So the habenula is just above that. But here’s the thing I’m thinking of as you talk, is we’re living so quickly and so fast. Um, and we know this from research, like so much, just the New York Times front page is more than many people, you know, 4,000 years would’ve had to deal with in their whole lifetime. So daily we’re bombarded with so much. So I think the practice of care, self care, when disappointment comes, is actually, quite astute that we have to pay attention to. Otherwise, we’re just gonna be shoving things down. And until, I don’t know, do you see what I’m saying? How fast, how we have to then really take time for our bodies, for our heart, soul, and minds when we are disappointed, for self care, which we’re learning how to do many things for our bodies, with what we understand with new research for care for our bodies.

Dan: Well, I think on one hand we are more entitled than we’ve ever been, but also so inured to the disappointments that come when our desires are not fulfilled. So I think in that disparity, it fits a little bit of what we are understanding biochemically in terms of the neuro transmitters. There is this, as you are disappointed, your body is aroused with desire and yet plummets and that shall we say contradiction. I know by simply being aware of this, I became much more aware over Thanksgiving where after an interaction, and I kind of walked away from a conversation going, oh, oh, oh, oh. It was, it was good. Oh, it, it could have been so much more. Can I not turn against myself? Can I not turn against the other person but actually be able to say, I’m feeling pain in my body. Now how do I care for my body? But before we get much further on that, the question is, this is a season where there is a heightened level of expectation and anticipation, but also likely that some of the outcomes will not be as we would desire. I’m curious for you particularly, because, you know, I’ll just be blunt. Christmas used to be like the high holiday of the year, and our home was decked out. You were decked out. We were decked out. Christmas shopping was, it was big.

Becky: We had to like, go to different towns to have a mall that was, you know, large enough, even in, when we lived in Littleton, going to Denver, that was 45 minutes, one way to drive without traffic. So yeah, there was, it’s so different with Amazon today that delivers, but yeah, it was, it was a big deal.

Dan: So the question of like, when you think about disappointments that are likely from past or present, where does your mind go in terms of your experience?

Becky: Well, yeah, I mean, I think now we are really aware that we don’t do nearly as much, but yeah, I can, I can go back and be very melancholy instantly, you know, I just think the lights outside and neighborhoods, especially as a child when they went down, you know, it’s just horrible. The feeling of going back to school or even going back to college. It was, ah, a lot of dread, you know? So I think you put so much anticipation into this holiday season, which is usually about 10 days or 12 days. And when it’s over, it’s, it’s very sad. So I think now I’ve learned how to buffer myself, to prepare myself. I’ve even paired down what we do at Christmas. So it’s really not a big chore. And I’m fine with it.

Dan: Well I, you know, to be honest, I go back to my gift giving to you. I mean, the very first Christmas I spent like, it as impoverished young couple, still in seminary. I bought some really expensive jewelry. And I remember, I remember the look on your face when you opened this gift. I mean, I was so anticipatory of your joy.

Becky: Oh dear. Oh no. Where that’s going. I still have the rectangle earrings, tortoise, shell, little gold like stripes on the, I it was just like, I know that was, sorry honey. I still have them though. I’ll wear them tomorrow.

Dan: It doesn’t, shall we say take away that for years, and it’s not like it hasn’t happened a few more time since then, I think gift giving, if it’s not one of your, shall we say talents. And I do think about, I think about what I want to give to you, to the kids and now to our in-laws, to our grandchildren, et cetera. And it, it isn’t inexpensive, but the bottom line is a lot of what I choose to give, is experiences. One of the gifts that I almost always give one of our children is, time to read a book together and then interact about that in the context of taking them to a meal or two. And I can say that my children are like, oh yeah, I guess it’s my year for the book.

Becky: How often do you not do that? I mean, you, it always sounds great at the time, but sometimes I don’t know if you get around to it.

Dan: Well, I think the interplay of just even beginning to talk about, gift giving, I can feel a little bit of a knot in my stomach as to like, oh no, this is not going to go as I would wish.

Becky: Hmm. Well, and I do think we have taken care of some of that with going away for the holidays, right? Yeah. I do need to get better at being a good gift giver. I appreciate those people who really are. I do.

Dan: Yeah. But I think that, and then the notion of like sweet family time, those kind of moments where you, you just think it’ll be great to be together to have this kind of interaction. And a lot of times, as it was for us at Thanksgiving, it was good. It was really good. And it wasn’t.

Becky: Well, I know we’re on this side of heaven, right? It’s just sad. It’s just, it’s just, I feel your desire and your heart is so big and it is sad. Just being human is sad.

Dan: Well, and I think that’s part of the framework to be able to say whether it’s gift giving, whether it’s time with your children. And I think for a lot of people, and I’ll just say for me, the Christmas season is that period where I’m looking at all the emails that I have not finished, where I’ve got generally projects that have to be done by the end of the year. And I’m not going to be able to do as well as I would wish it, it really is a season where I find there’s just as much of, not far more disappointment with me than it is with the world around me. And that sense of I’m not as disciplined. I didn’t do the work I should have done. There’s sort of this end of the year judgment constipation where I’m like, what do I do with the fact that I, I’ve got emails that I’ve not responded to since June of the same year. And in many occasions I just, I just go ahead and delete it.

Becky: It’s your life, honey. It just is. I’m, you think, well, I don’t know, Dan, maybe you need to like get rid of them in June. Like, I can help you. Like things like that. I don’t know if it’s helpful because, huh. I don’t know. Disappointment is just part of being human.

Dan: It is. And I think that framework of being able to go, okay, I have failed, I have not done as I would’ve wished, how do we care for our bodies? Particularly beginning how do you care for your body in the midst of disappointment?

Becky: I think first you acknowledge it, right? And then I think what we are doing more is we walk together and we talk about disappointments more. And I think that’s a sense, a way of caring. And sometimes a lot of people journal, like yeah. A journal. I do that sometimes and put it away in a folder on my computer. So, I don’t know. That’s, or maybe like give yourself a little joy.

Dan: Well, I, as crazy as it may sound, as we’ve engaged this topic, it has become something where allowing language, letting the experience of that habenula is in our limbic system. And it is, again, too simple of a phrase, but it is our emotional brain. But it will stay and stick to the degree that we let it remain only in our body. In some ways, we’ve got to allow language to come into this process.

Becky: Yes.

Dan: And that sense of being able to go, this is what I actually would’ve wanted to occur, and this is what did occur. And so letting yourself name those portions of the equation. And then being able, not to justify it or to blame, but to be able to say, how do I now hold this in a way that both honors my body, does not despair in the desire, but allows in some sense, anticipation to continue to grow. Like, what could I have asked? How could we have engaged to get closer to what it is that my heart would have desired? You know, I’ve already, uh, you know, played with the reality of what I’m gonna get you for your birthday, I mean, for Christmas. And you know, that question of, you know, what have you been actually naming as important to you? Have I been listening? And I have and begun to sort of go, oh, well, this might be a way to take you into the things that matter to you. So attentiveness creates, in one sense, greater anticipation, but in that anticipation, the disparity becomes even more acute. Am I willing to be disappointed? And I think that’s a very important category. Yeah. Am I willing to be?

Becky: I think there’s, we should have a ritual around disappointment. And I think sometimes you have like the ritual of burning, you know, papers that we don’t need anymore, or, you know, I do think we should think more as a concrete ritual that we could do to honor what we had hoped for, what didn’t happen, and then, and then honor it and set it aside somehow, maybe physically.

Dan: Yeah. I love that. And in fact, just the fact that you even said that, it’s like we have done that with our solo stove, not trying to sell solo stoves but you know, being able to take, you know, printed material that, either didn’t get finished, didn’t get completed,

Becky: Or was sent to the editor and then have a cigar and sit in the sunshine and burn it. You know? I know. It’s like, you really choose those times and I like it. I like joining you.

Dan: Well, and in that then the question becomes, how has disappointment opened your heart to the what I’ll just call the deeper things of what you desire, but also the deeper heart of God.

Becky: Well, I think it, it does take me to scripture. It takes me to prayer. It takes me to conversation with Jesus. It takes me to call different people on the phone when I need to like work through it. I need to let them know like, this took place and I feel this way. And I mean, I have a few friends and it’s, you know, they’re worth gold. So I do think there’s a lot more conversation we can have around this, but I do feel like, yeah, clear the deck. So there is time and space and that’s hard, to do clear the deck and have time and space.

Dan: Well, as we’ve been thinking about disappointment for a bit, I started thinking in terms of how often the people of God we’re in the midst of both a life of disappointment. being in exile in one sense, whether it be the Babylonian exile or others, the reality of how hope becomes the very realm in which we’re not only brought back to life, but what we also struggle with life. So that sense of we all struggle with hope. Part of it is we couldn’t live without hope. On the other hand, to actually hope is to create a heightened degree of potential for disappointment. And so I began pondering this passage in Isaiah chapter 49, which the whole chapter is a kind of promise to the people who are in exile that they will not remain, in that level of heartache and disappointment. But this one phrase, it comes from Isaiah 49 verse 23, “Kings will be your foster fathers and queens will be your nursing mothers.” I mean, just that alone.

Becky: Yeah. That’s amazing.

Dan: Like royalty will serve you. They will bow down, they will down, bow down before you, with their faces on the ground. And this gets a little bit degrading. But again, think about the anger that would be there given the harm the people of God suffered in captivity. They will lick the dust at your feet. They will know that I am God for those who hope in me, they will, will not be disappointed. Which is not to say we don’t have disappointment it just means that in some sense our disappointment is held by God. And that sense of, oh, there will be a day now how do we hold the promise of that day, which is clearly both already and not yet. But the not yet is that tension point of we’re living in a period in which we have fulfillment and we don’t have fulfillment. And to honor that in our bodies and in our conversations. And, but I love the way you put it. And our rituals becomes a way of tending to the heartache, to the hearts sickness without letting it fester and become more cancerous. But also for us not to let desire be dissipated just because we don’t want to feel the kind of sickness that’s in our body. So my love, let’s just say the season, we have at least a gift that we can begin to work toward. And that is how we will end this year, with rituals, honoring the disappointment, but also not being bound to it. I think that is, shall we say, a challenge. That I will look forward to how you give me as you think about rituals.

Becky: And, you know, that just occurred to me how easy it would be to do that at the end of each year. What were some of the main disappointments? What were the joys? And then you have that as sort of a, a diary of of your lifetime and I think there hopefully be more joys and a lot of those disappointments would fade more.

Dan: And maybe even open the door in it’s surprising and, often convoluted way for an even greater good to be able to arrive in the midst of that disappointment. That’s the promise. Of what is being offered to the exile. And we, as we are to some degree orphans, strangers and widows, we need something of that promise and something of the reality of how we care for our bodies in the present to indeed make our way through this sweet, unusual, complex, busy, and in some ways, disappointment latent season.