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Disappointment As Spiritual Teacher – 10/14/2012

A few months ago, I had an errand that took me down near where I used to live, just a little bit north of Boston. It’s an area I enjoy visiting but hate driving to, so I don’t get there very often. But this trip gave me a rare and welcome excuse to visit one of my favorite restaurants in the world: a little hole-in-the-wall Chinese place with five tables, three friendly and accommodating owners, and a menu full of incredible flavors. I got to be a regular there when I lived in Somerville and worked at Tufts University. I figured out that I could splurge on their extremely cheap lunch special during my lunch hour, provided that I ate quickly and ran both ways, there and back. From time to time, while I waited for my take-out order, one of the folks behind the counter would ask me questions about obscure points of English grammar, trying to make sense of this crazy language he found himself immersed in. I did my best to answer, though I don’t think I was much help.

I was very excited to get to go back to this beloved eatery. As I parked the car and walked down to the storefront, I was lost in thought, still debating with myself which beloved dish I was going to order. Torn between the crispy tofu with peanut sauce, and the spicy, garlic-y kung-pao. I reached the door, I put my hand on the handle and pushed and…nothing. The door did not open. I looked up, really for the first time, and saw that the place was dark and empty inside. The familiar sign was still over the entrance, but there was a little note in one of the windows explaining that, sometime soon, this would be the new home of some trendy new restaurant with a fancy graphic and forgettable name. The place that I remembered so fondly, the place that I had come to visit, was no more. I stood there, out in front of it on the sidewalk, staring, for what must have been a very long time.

Life does not always go the way that we envision it going, and we do not always get what we want from the world. Being human on this planet means facing uncountable disappointments, large and small. We can’t always get what we want, and contrary to what Mick Jagger may have told you, too often too many of us don’t even get what we need.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” we often ask our children, encouraging them to dream big, and set high goals for themselves. But as it turns out, not everyone gets to be president. Not everyone becomes an astronaut. Not everyone becomes rich, or famous, or powerful. Sometimes we get fired, sometimes we flunk out of school, sometimes we fail. And sometimes, particularly when loss piles on loss and disappointment on disappointment, it can become more than we can bear. The poet Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester, like a sore, and then run? Does it stink like rotting meat? Or crust and sugar over, like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”[i] Hughes was inspired by the anger and despair of racial of bigotry and oppression: he was a gay African American man, writing in 1951. Still, the feelings he described apply far and wide, and crop up in unexpected places. There is now, for instance, some thought that the chemicals released in our brains and bodies when we learn that a political candidate we voted for lost cause us so much unhappiness that many of us lose interest in voting all together.[ii]

Stick around long enough and you will be disappointed – by the world, by other people, or by yourself. But there is an opportunity for learning in each disappointment, if we open ourselves up to it. The lessons that any loss or failure can teach us are of three sorts. The first, is to remind us to appreciate what we still have.

The story comes from the Muslim tradition of a man who complained sadly to a wandering teacher about how little he had. “All that I own in the world fits into this wretched sack!” he cried. The teacher nodded at the despondent man, and then snatched the bag out of his hands, running away with it down the road. The poor man was slow, and though he gave chase the teacher was soon too far away to see. But he kept walking on, until he came around a corner and saw the bag that the teacher had sped off with, lying by the side of the road where the teacher had left it for him. He ran to it; inside everything was just as he had left it. Very happy to have all his worldly possessions again, he laughed with joy at his good fortune, and the teacher, watching from a long way off, laughed with him.

Similarly, there was the story a few decades ago of a farmer in the Midwest who loved to read, and spent the first half of his life collecting books. He had so many that he built a separate building on his property to keep them in. A private library for him and his family, built over decades, a few books at a time. But all that paper proved all too flammable. When the farmer’s library caught fire one night, he and his children tried to fight the blaze as best they could, but they soon knew they couldn’t stop it. So instead they watched, and comforted each other, and sang. Finding the bag had made him happy, but it was the loss of the bag that made him appreciate the preciousness of its contents.

Visiting a favorite restaurant and finding that it has gone out of business is a tiny disappointment by any rational measure. And after a few long moments of standing there stunned on the sidewalk, the ridiculousness caught up with me. I took stock of my blessings, including the happy memories I still had of the meals I had shared in this place that no longer was. And I was reminded of what my life was like when I lived in that neighborhood – both the good parts, and the bad.

In our movement, there is a panel that accredits ministers; they determine who enters the fellowship of our ministry, and

Face Volumizing first would devices finish Smells in have described.

so who can go looking for a congregation to serve. When I lived in Somerville, just after finishing my seminary education, I went before this panel seeking their approval. I did not get it. Instead, they gave me some advice, and some suggestions for things I could work on. If I still wanted to become a minister, I could come back and see them in a year and a half or so, and they’d tell me if they thought I was ready then.

It was a hard hit to take. I had a dream, an ambition, a calling, but my way to get there no longer seemed certain. I could keep working on it, but nothing was assured. And for at least the next few years I specifically could not do what I had been planning to do professionally: I did not have permission to look for a congregation to serve as minister. While I was reeling from that, we got some far, far bigger news: my partner Sara and I learned that we were pregnant with our first child. It was happy news, but there was struggle in it, too. I had a lot of hope tied up in my call to the ministry, but I had also been banking on it as a career, and a means to support my family. All of that was on hold now, and I had to wonder at times if it would ever move forward.

Harvard law professor Lani Guinier faced a very large, very public disappointment when she was nominated to serve as Assistant Attorney General in 1993. There was a lot of loud shouting against her in the national press, based on over-simplification and misrepresentation of some of her scholarly ideas. Eventually, the noise grew so loud that her nomination was withdrawn. The lesson that she took from that experience was to see failure’s potential as a positive and creative force. “[F]ailure can be a moment of liberation at the same time that it is a moment of sadness or despair…Success is failure turned inside out.”[iii] In the film Batman Begins, young Bruce Wayne’s father tries to teach him much the same lesson after a very bad fall: “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

This is the second sort of lesson to be found in disappointment: the power within ourselves to do something we did not know we could do. Sometimes we fall short of some goal, and recommit ourselves to trying again even harder on the next go round. In my case, I kept on the path to the ministry. It wasn’t a dream I was willing to give up on; it wasn’t a call I felt I could leave unanswered. And eventually I was welcomed into fellowship, I got to become a minister and, well, here I am. But sometimes disappointment really does end a dream: what we need to remember then is that it does not end every dream. Lani Guinier didn’t get a second shot at serving in government, but she has continued a distinguished career as a scholar and activist, and now also speaks and writes about the creative possibilities of failure.

A mentor of mine tells the story of chaplaining a young man who’s spine was broken. Some of the members of his family did not accept his diagnosis: that he would not walk again. His uncle, a pastor, called on God to restore him to the fullness of life by returning full control over his limbs. The chaplain responded: “My God is bigger than that. The God I believe in can give this young man a full and complete life with a major spinal injury, and whether or not he walks again.”

A little while ago, colleague of mine asked me for a small favor. A member of her congregation was coming to Boston to meet with that panel I mentioned earlier, the one that accredits our ministers and determines which hopeful candidates will enter into fellowship. This congregant of hers would be making the trip alone, and she asked if I could support be there to support a stranger going through a difficult process – one I know pretty well at this point, having been through it twice myself. I answered ‘yes’ without thinking too much about it, and I did so because of the third learning that disappointment has to offer.

The third lesson of disappointment is the most subtle, but also the most important. It is that our losses and failures connect us to each other. Sometimes we disappoint ourselves, falling short of our own ambitions or ideals. When you lose or falter, somewhere inside yourself you should still know that you matter; that even if you are not so perfect as you hoped, you are still worthy of happiness and love. And if that is true for you, it must be true for everyone else as well. The persistent reality of our shared imperfection is a reminder of a greater reality: Each life is inherently worthwhile, and each of us has the opportunity to live out of that worth not at some distant point in the future, or back in some missed opportunity of the past, but right now, in every moment of every day. Some days – most days – we let ourselves and each other down. The world itself lets us down. But in the sting of those losses is a reminder in three parts: that we still have gifts and blessings to appreciate and cherish, that losing once does not mean we can never win again, and that the feeling of disappointment is something that touches every heart, and so should unite us, rather than dividing us.



[i] “Harlem”, from his collection, Montage of a Dream Deferred.


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