Expanding on a previous post about the song "I Dreamed a Dream", this one will be a reflection of how to deal with our perceived failures. A more honest definition could be when things do not turn out the way we expected/hoped them to. How do we really deal with this? Some try drown themselves in alcohol, or fall into depressions.
I think it would be good to open through recounting three episodes in my life where I had to deal with these so-called unrealized expectations. You will see that they were excruciatingly painful at the time....
- One semester suspension from college for plagiarism. When I first arrived in college around 5 years ago, I was a hot-headed freshman who had a very elevated image of himself. There was a definite arrogance about me that was created out of being admitted into one of the most prestigious colleges in the country --while having somewhat mediocre grades and standardized test scores. In other words, I viewed myself as an "untouchable". This facade came crashing down when I intentionally plagiarized on a writing assignment, was caught, and ultimately suspended for one semester. Although a single semester may not seem much, the fact that it would be the second half of my freshman year was monumental. Instead of settling down into the college life, I was ushered back to live with my parents for 5-6 months. I remember hating myself for having made the mistake, a hatred that intensified as my parents openly were embarrassed by my actions. I was told to avoid questions concerning my being home, to the point of marginally lying. During this time off, I worked at an Office Depot store close by as well as volunteered at a nearby fire museum. Eventually I was readmitted to college and returned for sophomore year, but the experience will always be with me. I vividly recall the hopelessness when I found out I would be suspended and the shame of having to tell my parents about what happened.
- Graduating without a job. As a member of the Class of 2010, I graduated from college with a degree in economics but into an economy in recession. Having had made no concrete post-graduation plans outside of working, it was incredibly stressful as the countdown to graduation started falling into single digits while I had no job offer. I had spent hours every day frantically applying to jobs but, perhaps due to my lowly GPA and/or lack of extracurricular activities, I received few opportunities to interview and zero job offers. The fact that I would have to return to live with my parents further added to my anxiety -- not that I do not love them, but it seemed an utter embarrassment. In my desperation, I contacted my dean about the possibility of delaying graduation by one semester (reasoning is that I had been suspended for a semester prior). She brought me into her office and offered me a medicine that I was not expecting: frankly telling me that I did not have the right perspective. I recall this conversation very well. The dean stated noted that I probably arrived in college with a very different image of where/what I would be four years later. But that this was okay and I should be grateful to have parents who would be willing to have me back with them. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, as it was an opportunity to reconnect with my family. Admittedly at the time I wished she had offered me a job instead, yet I came to understand the wisdom of her words. Sometimes it's okay to not have our ideals realized.
- Not having Mandy. (If you are a repeat reader of this blog, then this is a no-brainer. I've been writing about this girl under the tag "Mandy" for months now...) The night I returned from the beach trip, I decided to hold a honest conversation with Mandy and ask her out again. The optimism was spurred by two things: the message of a church conference we both attended, as well as her inadvertently giving me her phone number. Needless to say, I was turned down for the second (and perhaps final?) time. While I was disappointed at the time, the weight of that disappointment did not set in until the day after. I felt absolutely crushed yesterday, both emotionally and physically drained. To understand my reaction, let us backtrack a bit. I met Mandy more than 3 years ago during a summer church conference. At the time I had doubts in staying with the church but I fell in love with her immediately after meeting her. It's somewhat inappropriate but she was the major reason I stayed with the church for a months following that encounter. Ever since then, I have always tried to interact with her as much as possible -- because she grew became the "girl of my dreams" and a source of inspiration for many things I did. In my eyes, she was absolutely amazing and I longed to be with her. But I also understood the folly of my thoughts and received an impression that she did not feel the same for me -- yet I chose to persevere and ignore the signs. Last winter was the first time I mustered the courage to tell her about how I felt and...I was turned down. Though I vowed to stop my incessant dreams and pursuit, my own circumstances changed as I was offered a much better job here in Washington D.C. For this reason and a firm conviction that she was "worth it", I found myself lapsing against my self-promise and beginning to try to impress her. This culminated into the past weekend, when I felt we had renewed our rapport and that perhaps she realized I have much changed since our last interaction. So I gambled and asked her out. And...I failed. This time the effect was much worse, as she indicated that it was her and not me -- which meant there is absolutely nothing I could do. More heartbreakingly, she suggested that I try date other girls. I was appalled and depressed throughout yesterday; in hindsight this melancholy hit rock bottom sometime yesterday evening as I felt a combination of utter misery, hopelessness, and inadequacy. But after a feverish prayer and dialogue with a friend and my roommate, I began to slowly recover. (I suppose I recovered enough to be able to recount all of this).
I think it's safe to say that no one likes to have their plans foiled, because if you did, then that is borderline madness (!). We all aspire to hopes and dreams on everything from careers to relationships -- the pursuit of the so-called "perfect life". While this pursuit itself is a bliss --as it is a purely theoretical construct, for we humans are imperfect to begin with-- we must not abandon these aspirations. Sometimes inspiration is the greatest catalyst to change; other times, that catalyst arrives in the form of life experiences.
Having dealt with unrealized hopes/dreams myself (as recounted above), I empathize with anyone who also had these experiences. The reality is, unless one has been pampered from birth, we have all experienced disappointments in one form or another. There are different sorts of disappointments, of course -- which triggers different reactions from us. Whether it is from having a Starbucks barista messing up your special coffee order or being rejected by a significant other, it is debilitating when these occasions happen. Some respond with anger, others fall into a depression that may last for months or even years. Yet what we can take away from these disappointments is that they have strengthened our resolve and taught us valuable lessons about mistakes we might have made along the way. It can be hard at first, but we ought to remember disappointments for what they have taught us -- rather than delving into the "could have beens".
The above being said, I put together a brief list of take-aways from my own experiences in dealing with disappointments. These may not apply for everyone, but I do think they have universal applications:
- Taking a risk and failing is infinitely better than avoiding the risk altogether. Deep down we are all afraid of taking risks ("risk-averse"): we play like to play it safe by maintaining a status quo rather than altering it, however ameliorating that change may be. But by not taking the risk, you create the much bigger inner monster called "Regret". Regret is like a seed that eventually grows into a tree within us. It may eventually dominate our thoughts and debilitates like nothing other. There's nothing quite like desiring to win but having the fear of losing crowding out the excitement of winning.
- Seeking the help of others. Particularly in the U.S., we live in a culture that very much admires self-reliance and independence from influence of others. This is often a good thing, but can also be bad in instances where the help of another can exempt us from the growing pains of trying things on our own first. Ironically, most people jump at the opportunity of helping others yet refuse to ask for help in return. I think the main problem is pride. You have to be conscious of this when seeking exterior assistance. In my second example, the meeting with the dean transformed the way I looked at things.
- Focus on learning from the failure/disappointment. This begins with refusing to scapegoat others and instead focus on your own shortcomings. What could you have done differently? If given a second chance, how would you change? The simple truth is, we learn so much more from our failures than our successes. In addition, failures toughens us mentally so we are better prepared for future encounters.
- Fear is nothing but an artificial construct. Building off from a previous blog post about dealing with fears, in a very bizarre manner, we tend to feel very liberated when our fears are realized. Of course there are feelings of sadness and disappointment too, but we also sense freedom from our fears. This leads to the realization that fears had no influence on the outcome to begin with -- which we would do well to keep in mind.