Dealing with Disappointment in Your New Life
This month we led a team retreat with a dynamic team living in Beirut whose work is primarily with the Syrian refugees. All five couples are raising young families in the concrete jungle of high-rises, ever-present construction, and the chaos of Lebanese traffic. Half of the newer members of the team is at that critical 2-4 year window of making a major transition— the romanticized ideas of what you have signed up for have long died and they are staring the long-term realities in the face.
And when they are honest with themselves, one emotion that seems to be ever on the surface is DISAPPOINTMENT. They are disappointed that their Arabic learning is so slow… that team life wasn’t what they expected… that the school system is so harsh… that they can’t help their kids with homework… that they can’t seem to find a rhythm for connecting with God in an urban setting…… that the community orientation of an Arabic setting means groups are tight-knit and not open to outsiders. There’s not one arena of life: spiritual, vocational, social, familial, that they aren’t experiencing disappointment.
Major transitions have a way of creating a demarcation that defines our life with a BEFORE and AFTER.
- Life at home vs. Life at college
- Life before that major accident/diagnosis vs. life afterward
- Life before kids vs. life after kids
- Life in your home country vs. life as a foreigner
- Life with that significant person in your life vs. life without him/her
- Life as a married person vs. life after a divorce or death of your spouse
And somehow a year or two into the transition we can’t figure out why we are not adjusted to the NEW life already. These type of transitions may take 2-4 years before we settle into a new way of being… much longer than we anticipate. Unfortunately, one thing that can hinder our process is when we get stuck in the comparison of our OLD life to our NEW life.
Think of your OLD life and your NEW life as if you were comparing apples and oranges. Let’s say you love oranges… the taste, the juice, the fun of peeling it, even the way the smell lingers on your hands after you are done. If all your life, you had only experienced oranges, then I handed you an apple instead; you would be disappointed. It’s not that an apple is bad — it’s just not an orange. An apple is a different experience.
Comparing your old life and your new is rarely an even comparison— each will have unique beauties and each will have challenges. In every transition – even the positive ones- you will gain some things and you will lose some things.
So how do we approach this season before we have fully settled into our NEW life?
Let GO of what you know. Many times when we are adjusting to a new situation or new relationship, we find ourselves clinging to what we knew from before. Because we don’t know enough about the NEW life, we have no experiences to help anchor us through the change.
One of the couples we worked with in Beirut was raised in Alaska. Recently, as they were touring potential schools for their son, they took a few minutes to let their child play on the playground. As the father watched his son climbing the plastic slide, scenes from his childhood— playing in stream and running in the woods— began flashing back and the reality that his son would have an urban childhood brought sudden waves of grief.
It’s not that his son wasn’t having fun on the playground; obviously, children can experience vibrant (albeit very different) lives in urban contexts. But this dad cannot easily embrace a childhood shaped by the city because it’s not in his experience base. Not yet. Expect a season of free-fall as you let go of the KNOWN and turn towards the UNKNOWN.
Acknowledge the disappointment that some of your NEW life is not what you hoped it would be. There’s no way to make a transition and NOT have disappointment. The nature of change means we form expectations about what we will receive. And rarely do we get exactly what we expected. Sometimes things are better; other times things are worse.
Sometimes we are afraid to admit our disappointment because we are afraid it means we made a mistake or that somehow it means we don’t like everything about our new life. Or if we made the transition and others didn’t agree with our decision, we fear talking about our struggle means we will give them ammunition to say “I told you so.”
But disappointment is unavoidable, even in the most beautiful of changes we make in our lives.
Often these disappointments are pointing to something we need to grieve. Go ahead and NAME your loss. Every transition will involve loss of some sort whether it be a relationship, a familiar way of life, status, freedom, mobility, or a variety of other things (see my post on Naming Your Losses). Grieve these losses so that you can let go.
If your transition includes sacrifice, offer it to God as a sweet offering. Many major transitions involve sacrifice or obedience: pouring your life into a new ministry/context, choosing to stay home with your children, making a move for your spouse’s career, letting go of a damaging relationship, assuming a major care-taking role for someone, even leaving behind singlehood.
One of the most helpful ways for me to grieve and let go has been to picture my loss as an offering. Because the calling on our lives involves living overseas, we have missed funerals, graduations, major birthdays, being present in crisis, and countless other significant moments. When I feel the loss welling up, I have a good cry then picture myself laying my loss on the altar to God.
When our transition is linked to poor choices, offer those up as a sacrifice; the altar of repentance is the best place to take our sin. If the transition is linked to someone else’s sin and has caused you great suffering, consider it a fellowship offering, finding fellowship with Jesus who Himself suffered cruelly because of the sin of others.
Somehow framing these losses as a gift to God helps them to view them in their proper perspective. If we don’t tap into the big picture of WHY we are choosing that that new life, we will become overwhelmed with the losses and live in perpetual disappointment.
In the case of our friends in Beirut, their calling to serve refugees in Lebanon means they are surrendering dreams and longings for their children. That’s big. Never belittle your losses— they matter to you and they certainly matter to God.
Open your hands to receive an apple instead of an orange. As we release these disappointments, losses, longings, and sacrifices at the altar of surrender, powerful transformation happens in our souls. You may leave the altar open-handed, but never empty hearted. God imparts to us exactly what we need to continue forward on our new path… Strength. Hope. Affirmation. Peace. Comfort. Freedom. Forgiveness. We cannot possibly out give God. Ever. Every gesture of faith and surrender is met with a revelation of God’s goodness and love, though it may not become clear to you until later.
And there, as we release whatever we have so tightly clutched, we will suddenly find our hearts more open to embrace the NEW. You may not be eating oranges anymore, but you may find that an apple is pretty dang good. Different, but good. As you open yourself to exploring the world of apples, you may find things you like about your NEW life better. But you’ve got to let go of the world of oranges first.
This post is dedicated to my college freshman who misses the ‘orange groves’ of home… praying you find joy in your new world on the other side of the ocean. And here’s my favorite apple pie recipe.. xoxox Mom