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Sunday, March 09, 2008

On the Shore of Disappointment

Recently, Dwayne and I have been talking about disappointment and how it's hard to watch someone struggle. Our tendency is to want to rush in and encourage them, because disappointment is dangerously close to frustration and hopelessness.

For example, Dwayne has been struggling with a touch of disappointment this week and I have been tempted to show him all the reasons why he shouldn't be disappointed. Not because what he's feeling is inappropriate. On the contrary, it's very understandable. However, it's disconcerting to acknowledge that sometimes we feel let down by God, and so it's easier to try and convince him to feel otherwise. To say things like, "Yeah, but look at how this or that has worked out." or "You never know where else you might be if it weren't for this or that."

Words like these are meant well, but in the end they do my husband and every other person who's in a moment of discontent a disservice. It snatches the emotion away from them and denies them the permission to experience it.

I'm reminded of two books - _The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems_ by Tracy Hogg and _Let Your Life Speak_ by Parker Palmer. Two vastly different topics are covered in these books, but ironically they both have given me insight into the predicament of disappointment and frustration.

Tracy Hogg writes about all things baby and included in her book is a section about sleep training. When parent's have created poor sleep habits in their babies, she lays out a plan to help condition new sleep patterns. Of course the baby will protest and lots of crying is involved, but she doesn't advocate letting the baby "cry it out." Instead, she tells the parent to simple sit beside the crib and soothe their baby with their voices. What the baby wants is to be held, or to be rocked, or to be given a pacifier. But Tracy admonishes the parent not to give in. "Your baby is simply frustrated" she says. "Never fight a crying child. But maintain contact by placing a firm hand on his back so that he knows you're there...The idea is that you're giving him comfort and security and letting him have the emotion."

While she is talking about babies and sleep training, I couldn't help but think about my husband and myself and every other person I've known who's gone through a time of disappointment. It's tempting to what to "fix" the emotion, but like Tracy so astutely points out, it's better to sit on the periphery of that person's experience and let them have the emotion.

Parker Palmer talks about this tendency to want to "help" people as an outpouring of our own insecurities. He says that while we think we're taking care of the person in depression or disappointment, we're actually injuring them, because our help comes from a need to disassociate with that person's pain.

Palmer says that standing on the edge of another person's mystery and misery makes us feel "useless and powerless, which is exactly how a depressed person feels -- and our unconscious need as Job's comforters is to reassure ourselves that we are not like the sad soul before us."

So this time around, I've been trying to listen to my husband rather than help him. I've been trying to "stand respectfully" as Palmer says, on the shore of my husband's emotions, letting his disappointment lap dangerously close to my feet.


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