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The Geography of Disappointment

by Laura Didyk

Imagine that everything is going okay, maybe even great; we have our sights set on something promising in the future—a prize, a relationship, a career—but the future suddenly makes other plans. Someone else wins, our partner falls out of love with us, we don’t get the job we were sure would change everything—in short, things don’t unfold in our favor.

Disappointment, in my experience, requires that we walk through the doorway of okayness, across the bridge of what is, and into the countryside of not-what-we’d-hoped. It shares acreage with the variegated country of devastation and loss, has parcels of land that overlap with fear’s borders, and builds a sad excuse for a fence between itself and the lowlands of failure.

One weekend when I was a kid, my family had plans to embark on a day trip to Great America, a large California amusement park a couple hours north of us. I’d been looking forward to it for weeks. That morning, I was playing in our front yard, looking out toward the hills west of us, the dot of the Pacific Ocean in between them so small that I could cover it with my thumb. The day was going to be great—nothing else existed, nothing else mattered—except cotton candy, the Gulf Coaster, bumper cars, and the Yankee Clipper (the best water ride ever). In the midst of my reverie, my mother came out of the house and told me, as nicely as she could, that for some reason I now can’t recall we weren’t going to be making the trip. You would have thought by my reaction that somebody had died. Or that I was going to die, which is what it felt like. I sobbed to the hills in the distance, I sobbed as I refused to go back inside, and then I wandered the neighborhood, sobbing some more, a bereft child alone in the world without her amusement park. As melodramatic as this seems to me now, I was left hollow, undone, and, yes, devastated—I had reached my first Everest of disappointment.

It took the rest of that day and a good portion of the next before I started to feel better. The depth of the letdown matched the excitement and anticipation that had built up in me, which is how disappointment generally works. If our expectations are low, the disappointment is almost benign, hardly strong enough to be called disappointment. If they are unrealistically high, if our entire well-being is balanced precariously on this one thing that, in the end, goes awry, then we are in trouble. This particular instance was the first time I had to grapple with what it meant to “come to terms with” something, and what it felt like when I could not—the root, perhaps, of most suffering, the inability to see and accept things as they are. I don’t know if most kids have this kind of kinesthetic reaction to such things, or struggle as much as I did that day to bounce back, but I do know that it changed me and has stood ever since as the model for disappointing experiences.

When I was 15, I qualified for a four-state regional gymnastics meet in Park City, Utah. The fact that I’d made it to regionals was the talk of our gym, as it was the farthest anyone from the girls’ team had gone. I felt like a star. I was, however, entering the meet with a bad case of shin splints, wearing thin rubber sleeves on both my calves, on a serious ibuprofen regime, and spraying my legs with liquid ice every 30 minutes or so to keep them numb. But I’d been doing this all season and it hadn’t stopped me yet.

I started the second day’s warm-ups on the vault. During my first sprint down the runway, my legs gave out. It had happened before, in regular practice, but never on a competition day when I was usually so full of adrenalin that I could have sprained my ankle and still kept going. I hobbled up and was about to start again, but before I could, my coach stopped me and pulled me into the bleachers. He sat for a few minutes in quiet before he spoke. “Are you going to be able to do this?” he asked.

Today was the optionals competition, which meant difficult tricks, riskier landings, more potential for injury—all of this was implicit in his question.

“Yes,” I said, not missing a beat. “I’m fine.”

He grew quiet again. He wanted me to go for it, he explained, if I felt like I could. “I know you think you can push your way through this,” he said. “And you probably can. But I don’t want … You could really hurt yourself. And we don’t want you hurt. If you really think you can, go for it. But if not…” he trailed off and patted me on the shoulder, which meant: if not, it’s alright.

This was something new—him leaving such a big decision up to me, a decision that, potentially, my whole athletic career balanced on. I had already started receiving recruiting letters from California universities known for their NCAA gymnastics teams—if I dropped out, who knew what this could mean for me, for my future. So the last thing I wanted to do was “scratch”—as in scratch my name off the list of competitors. Drop out. Quit the meet.

I’m certain I sat alone on those bleachers for a total of 5 minutes at the most, but it felt eternal. I rolled the rubber wraps down to my ankles and stared at my legs. My chin on my knees, I remember feeling incensed at the limits of my body, wishing, just for that day, that I could borrow someone else’s. I pressed my thumbs deep into the calf muscle of my right leg—the muscle knotted up, a thing I’d grown used to, and my foot curved downward until I flexed it and massaged the spasm out. When I ran my fingers down the swollen front muscles of my shins, using just slightest pressure, the pain ran down the length of my leg and into the tops of my feet.

For the first time in my 10 years as a gymnast, at the biggest competition of my life, I decided to scratch. No amount of liquid ice or ibuprofen was going to re-infuse my legs with strength and stamina. My body was tired. I couldn’t imagine pounding down the runway again, getting through a whole floor routine that included two risky tumbling passes and various jumps and turns, or landing my dismount from the balance beam. If my legs decided at the exact wrong moment that they didn’t want to hold me up or endure a hard landing, I could fall in a bad way.

As soon as I told my coach—through tears—what I’d decided and it became final with the officials, I began to convince myself that I’d wimped out, that maybe my legs weren’t as bad as I thought, maybe I was even faking it a little for the attention. My coach and I sat in the bleachers and watched the entire meet. We watched girls fall off the beam, stick perfect double backs on the floor, and spin around the bars at top speed. We watched as a girl from Sacramento won the gold medal.

Aside from disappointing myself, I was sure I’d let down my coach, the gym, and my parents, and put any possible college scholarships in jeopardy. I know now that I made if not the right decision, the smart one. It would have been just like me to forge ahead out of pride and then injure myself in some serious, irreversible way—I can be that driven. Having said that, it was the last time I ever competed, and it wasn’t the way I’d hoped to go out. I let this event weigh me down for years. I let it say something about my willingness to give up when things get tough and the ease with which I climb up and onto that sagging fence between disappointment and failure.

What I’d wanted to happen—for me to compete, win, return home with a medal to even more letters from interested recruiters—did not happen. It was just a gymnastics meet. It was 20 years ago. I have had much bigger disappointments since then to contend with, but these weighty moments, these long-ago half-regrets, can make imprints on our deepest selves if we let them. Not only was I disappointed, but I feared I was a disappointment.

There is an adage that says, “There’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip.” We take an action, we have an intention, but sometimes the universe has other plans for us. Sometimes I still feel like that kid walking like a grieving widow through her neighborhood. Even now, the struggle can be as intense as that day but not as lasting as the years that followed my last gymnastics meet. As devastating and far-reaching as these disappointments were, I survived them. I have done things I’m not proud of to try and short cut through the pain. But over and over, I have picked myself up, or, in the least, let time have its way with me in smoothing out some of what’s been roughed up.

This is the most valuable lesson of all: More times than not, we don’t get what we want. There are many stories to the contrary, of course, and I happen to believe that the amount of spiritual power we have to make miraculous things happen in our lives is almost scary. But the slippage of plans, the crumbling of hopes, and the dashing of dreams is part of the journey. We can fight against it, or we can learn to bend in the wind. No matter what we do, at some time or another, we are going to have to make the trek across disappointment’s dismal country and accept that we can’t go backwards or redo what’s been done. If we stay strong—feel as we go, only half-believe the lies we tell ourselves about who we are and how life will be from here on out, keep our eyes on the horizon, just keep hiking—we’ll get across it, maybe even faster than we think.



Laura Didyk, MFA, former Special Projects Editor at Kripalu Center, is an essayist, poet, and a former athlete with a lifelong passion for nutritional health and optimal living.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the November 2007 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.