How to be Disappointed

It’s always difficult to cope when a person you respect and admire turns out to be less than you hoped he was. We’ve been seeing a lot of that in the public sphere lately, even more than usual — Michael Vick number 7 jerseys and “Vote Larry Craig for Senate” yard signs are being thrown in the fire with equal vigor in their respective areas of the country.

As typical as it has become for our sports heroes and political leaders to let us down, it’s never so common that it stops being disappointing. And it’s not like we even have any personal involvement with them; celebrity peccadilloes will never have any effect on our day-to-day lives (unless you find yourself in a stall next to Sen. Craig), but they still cause a genuine sense of loss and betrayal.

It’s because we invest ourselves in people: To a large extent our sense of ourselves depends on our perception of the people around us. We don’t even have to know them well — or at all — to make this investment, and often we make the mistake of investing in people before we know much about them.

But it’s that much worse to be let down by someone you do know well. I almost wrote, “…by someone you think you know well,” but that would be misleading. Just because someone disappoints you doesn’t mean that person was concealing something sinister about themselves. It just means that people fall short of our ideals sometimes. Falling short of ideals is basically the only thing you can always count on people to do.

So, at times we’re going to have to cope with disappointment from the people in our lives, even the ones we know well and even the ones who love us dearly (and we’re going to have to cope with it from some more often than others). How can we do that without turning into hard-hearted, bitter misanthropes?

First, we need to understand who we’re dealing with: people. Fallible, short-sighted, flesh-and-blood people. You can’t avoid them; there might even be a couple living in your house. Their scientific name is homo sapiens, which is Latin for “hairless ape that makes bad decisions.”

Everybody you know either will do something stupid in the future or has done something stupid in the past that you will find out about. Given that fact, we need to recognize that it’s a mistake to pin our conceptions about what is good and right to any one person — even a person who is very wise, even a person who genuinely has our best interests at heart.

Note that I didn’t say we should stop investing ourselves in people. It might seem like you can avoid the pain of disappointment by just expecting that everyone you meet will do you dirt. You even get to be pleasantly surprised when you’re wrong. But that is a path to an ugly, solitary existence. And it’s a bad bet, statistically speaking. Nobody stops eating hamburgers just because some of them might have E coli, even though some of them do have E coli. Healthy relationships have infinitely more potential for joy than pain. Plus, God put us all here; He probably expects us to talk to each other.

But in a healthy, Godly relationship, we don’t depend on that investment for our own self-worth. We often make the mistake of clinging to someone — a friend or a lover or some rock star — and thinking, “This person is good, therefore by association with them I am good.” When we say that, we’re drawing interest on our investment from the wrong source.

Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone.” Now, THAT sounds cynical, but what He means is that God is the only source of goodness; we are only good inasmuch as we let God work through us. If you dug that first scripture reference, here’s another, from our buddy John:

Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.

We are only the conduits for God’s goodness, so don’t make the mistake of putting your faith in the conduit. Admire people still, love them still, and share yourself with them. But know that our goodness or badness depends not on our proximity with each other, but our proximity with Him.

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