River of Disappointment
We made a boat out of maple branches. It is miniature, to be exact. A raft easily held in the palm of one hand. I sincerely doubt our future as boatswains, but lashing each cross-timber taut with twine, my bride and I imagined our handmade vessel lumbering proudly along the Cumberland River, floating beneath bluffs, past driftwood and obsolete manmade river structures, enduring the wakes and whims of behemoth watercraft. To the mast’s forked upper extremity we attached a pair of makeshift sails — leftover fabric scraps from my wife’s sewing projects. I whittled a push-pole oar and nailed it deftly to the mast in hopes that it might doubly aid in securing it from falling over should the twine fail. A Lilliputian presence on an overwhelming vein of living water, our raft, though soaked and traumatized, would be stable, buoyant, and intact. The sight of it afloat on the river would be glorious.
Through the cold, early November air under sunlight’s gift, we walked the path leading to river’s edge. Tying a long leader string to the bow — we had no desire to lose the object of our labor — we set the raft adrift. Though it may seem so, my wife and I were not on a Scouting or boat-building project; we were on a date, an expedition, “looking for lost time,” as one of our favorite artists, Sara Groves, writes. After nearly twenty years of marriage a river date, though not exactly fashionable, is rife with symbol, more so than the traditional dinner-movie date. Not that I’m an expert in symbolism, tradition, or dating, for that matter. The only glitch, as far as I can tell, is that our boat sank, and quickly. Neither buoyant nor adroitly crafted, with no ballast to offset the heavier mast astern, the raft immediately capsized. It slipped downstream half-heartedly like the Titanic in the final moments before Her Majesty’s Ship disappeared into the north Atlantic for a hundred years or so. But floating to the surface — unlike our boat — came disappointment, the old familiar leviathan.
We never ask for disappointment, do we? It shows up uninvited like grumpy Aunt Lurleen, unexpected as a canker sore, as unwelcome as salt in a wound. It does not politely remove its hat upon entering our world, nor does it apologize. Disappointment never apologizes. Forgoing customary greetings, it barges in and sets to flooding the place. So what of it, Eric? Big deal. Grow up. Be an adult. Though indeed responses, they avoid the question: What do we do with all the disappointment? Accept it? Get on with life? Love it? Hide from it? Pull it close? Push it away? Drown in it? Grieve? Take joy in it? Capitulate?
Though haunted by my share of it, I don’t profess to know what to do with disappointment, but I am learning what not to do: avoidance. To willfully ignore lost or unmet expectation is to let the heart sink in its own dark waters. “Grow thicker skin,” they say. But are we human or animals? To avoid going through life numb we must choose to feel it in its decay, delight, and drollery. To numb ourselves, we attach to any manner of coping mechanisms: narcotics, alcohol, pornography, shopping, staying busy, work, self-righteousness. Even misery is a coping mechanism. But consider this indisputable, non-disappointing fact: even if only for one miniscule moment in all of time, you are alive in the world with breath to breathe, a heart that pulses, blood that flows, and, if you’re lucky, a few unwanted pounds to shed. Be surprised by this fact. Facing disappointment is not a matter of gritting one’s teeth and stubbornly plowing through, but in pausing, holding the loss, examining it, feeling the very real and raw emotions accompanying letdown, and doing so with informed humility, as if to tell disappointment, “You’re real, but you are not my captain.”
Like a capsized raft utterly exposed and vulnerable in open water, it is possible that disappointment reveals my deepest, submerged needs: for empathy, for rest from arrogance, for vulnerability, for the leader rope of grace to pull me out of my very human habit of ceaseless striving and needing to prove myself over and again not only to myself and others, but to God Himself. I am aware that my disappointment springs from superhuman assumptions and unmet expectations. I should not expect Paradise in a desert. I need forgiveness, not for being imperfect, but for aspiring to perfection. Disappointment is exhausting when success attempts to quench its thirst in a dry valley of bones. It never does; hence, rest is elusive.
Foundering in disappointment, may our self-made hearts have the courageous humility to confess our habitual submerging of what is magnificently true about our Christ-crafted hearts: that we are enough. By His birth, life, death, and resurrection, the Messiah willingly acquainted Himself with shadowy disappointment, grave sadness, hopeless depths, and all the rejection a cosmos could inflict. If that is not enough for us, then we will never be enough. If we are all we have, if we’re all we need, then disappointment becomes our capsized god for whom no river pauses. Tethered to the Maker who delights in us His labor, setting sail in the gifts of days, we float our makeshift rafts through the ghostly fog of disappointment and cynicism, calling out to those bleak barriers, “You are not my captain.” And all the while, the river takes us home.