On Managing Disappointment

‘Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.’

So quipped Bill Shankly, the former manager of Liverpool F.C. Even so, a week on from England’s defeat in the Euro 2021 final, most of us, if we ever cared at all, will have got over our disappointment that, once again, football wasn’t coming home after all. Despite Shankly’s assertion, we will have come to realise that, whilst an enjoyable distraction, whether England won or lost wasn’t really all that important at all. It is perhaps only those whose lives have nothing of greater value to worry about who will still be struggling with the heartbreak of yet another penalty shootout defeat and only those who are so insecure in who they are themselves that will feel the need to vilify those they see as responsible for the disappointment that they continue to feel.

Even so, we all know what it is to feel disappointment when things that we have looked forward to don’t materialise in the way we had hoped they would. Many of us, if we haven’t holidayed already, will be anticipating times away from work and all the more so given how pressurised General Practice has been of late. Though it will be good to have that much needed break, it won’t be just a few of us who will experience some disappointment related to our holidays this year. For some of us it will be because our week or two away won’t turn out to be as enjoyable as we had hoped, others of us won’t quite be able to avoid taking with us some of the sadness that we would have liked to have left at home, and for others of us our disappointment will come simply because, however great our vacation experiences turn out to be, they will inevitably eventually come to an end and we will be forced to return to a normality that, for some of us at least, is far from how we would like it to be.

But if we can experience disappointment because our two weeks in the south of France is ruined by the lack of a decent local boulangerie, how much more must the disappointment be for many of our patients who don’t have the luxury of being able to look forward to any time away from the difficulties that they face. For some of them it is not merely disappointing individual incidents that they struggle with but rather an overall, all encompassing, disappointment with how their lives have turned out, be that on account of the social deprivation that they have to encounter daily, the poor physical health with which they suffer or the deep personal sadnesses from which there is never any prospect of any even temporary escape. And then there are those who are facing the prospect of death which, after even the most satisfying of lives, is still unwelcome and a cause for disappointment that the good times are now forever over.

So how are we to help those with whom we consult who come to us with such a sense of disappointment that it is hard for them to carry on. And how are we to cope with our own disappointments when they inevitably materialise in our own lives. Because unlike a lost game of football, not all disappointments can be dismissed by a realisation that the thing that brings us sorrow never mattered at all in the first place.

Whilst it is true that we are all sometimes more disappointed about things than we need be, to sing along in nihilistic agreement to the closing lines of Bohemian Rhapsody that ‘nothing really matters, nothing really matters to me’, makes fools of us all. Because some things really do matter. Our disappointment is a measure of how far things are from how we want them to be. Though unpleasant, it is not an unhelpful feeling, given how it speaks to us, not only of the difficulties that we are currently experiencing but also the better circumstances that we all so long for, testifying perhaps that things can and indeed should be better.

This last week I was sat on Whitesands Beach not far from St David’s in Pembrokeshire watching people enjoying themselves playing in the sea. For some reason, despite wanting to, I didn’t feel able to join them irrespective of how awesome I would undoubtedly have looked with my wetsuit on and ‘Atom’ emblazoned across my chest like some modern day comic strip superhero! My feelings were similar to those I almost always experience at discos, if indeed discos are what they are still called. On such occasions you will always find me on the edge of the dance floor, too self conscious to show off my highly original and frankly alarming dance moves and resorting instead to clutching a pint and simply wishing I could enjoy myself by joining in with those who are dancing and clearly having such fun in the process. I wonder if this somewhat melancholic experience is one that others of us sometimes have, one in which we are all too aware that genuine happiness really is to be found out there somewhere but that it somehow always remains elusively just out of reach.

It was C,S. Lewis that wrote ‘Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise…If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.’

As I say then, our disappointment has real meaning, speaking to us of a better tomorrow that really is out there for us to enjoy. And, welcome though it would be, I am not referring here to an England victory in next year’s World Cup! On the contrary, regarding our desire for something better, Lewis continues that ‘Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.’

If Lewis is right then medicine needs to stop imagining that it can bring about a utopia of perfect health, still less that which not even a fortnight on the Côte d’Azur can bring about, a world characterised by perfect happiness that never ends. That is something that medicine simply cannot deliver, not with a pill, not with a procedure, not even with a course of therapy. On the contrary, even the happiest of lives come to an end and when death does eventually inevitably draw near, medicine has no answer save to ease an individuals passing. This is not to say that palliative medicine isn’t hugely important, only that we make a mistake if we believe that there is ever such a thing as a truly good death. Because there isn’t, not at least for those who believe that our lives matter and that death, however less bad it can be made, is never truly good given the loss it entails and the end of what might otherwise have been.

Rather then than imagining itself to be the answer to everyone’s problems and in so doing only serving to disappoint those who do come to rely on it too heavily, medicine needs instead to play its part in helping others to press on to that other country of which Lewis speaks.

And so, whilst not being it’s main role, I believe medicine needs to make room for other philosophies and, acknowledging it’s limitations, be honest enough to at least suggest to patients that the answers to their greatest needs may be better found somewhere other than in the treatments we sometimes all too readily offer, in something bigger and better than all that even medicine has to offer. And, for me at least, that will, on occasions, involve me encouraging my patients to consider God, in whose presence, ancient wisdom tells us, can be found both fullness of joy and pleasures for evermore. [Psalm 16:11].

Recognise this and perhaps both we and our patients will be better able to cope when the bad times come, regardless of whether the associated disappointment is caused by circumstances, others, or ourselves. Furthermore we may be better able to enjoy more fully the good times when they come without our requiring them to be more than they actually are, without our requiring them to be perfect. Instead we can enjoy them, recognising them to be the echoes of those endless yet better times to come which so many of us continue to look forward to. And when that hope is finally fully realised, as I believe it one day will be, when every tear is wiped away and death is no more [Revelation 21:4], we will discover that it will more than amply compensate, not only for those missed opportunities to go wild on the dance floor, the absence of fresh croissants on our holiday breakfast tables and the consequences following a missed penalty kick, but also for all the genuinely heartbreaking disappointments in our lives, even that of death itself.

For then it will not be football that’s coming home – it will be we ourselves who are homeward bound. And having arrived there and found that we are home for good, I for one can’t imagine ever being disappointed again!


Postscript:

Later in the week I finally overcome my former reticence and adopted my altered ego of ‘Atom Man’ and so braved the waves of Newgale. It was good to forget myself and to feel, not lost or insignificant, but still wonderfully small, happily caught up and enveloped in something immensely bigger and vastly more impressive than I will ever be.

But by golly it was cold!


Related blogs:

To read, ‘Because sometimes not even chocolate is good enough’, click here

To read, ‘Covid-19. Does it suggest we really did have the experience but miss the meaning’, click here

To read, ‘Something to reflect on – are we too narcissistic?’, click here

To read, ‘Towards a more compassionate resilience’, click here

To read, ‘Health – it’ll be the death of us. Is there institutional arrogance in the NHS?’, click here

To read, ‘Waiting patiently for the Lord’, click here

To read, ‘The Lord is my Portion’, click here

To read, ‘Hope comes from believing the promises of God’, click here

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