Dreams and disappointment

By Craige McMillan

Disappointment is, in the end, at the very heart and soul of what it means to be human. Over the past couple of years I’ve suffered several, which is all the qualification usually required of commentators.

It really doesn’t matter what your disappointment is, or mine for that matter. It might be a marriage gone sour, plans for a new business or career that never materialized, or perhaps stock market losses that have dashed hopes of retirement. Based on our plans, we developed certain expectations. “I will be married to so-and-so. One year from now I will open a new business, or begin a different job in another city. By the year 2010 I will have this many retirement dollars stashed away in my 401K.”

Yet surely disappointment involves more than simply plans that never happened. Many of our minds are made, it seems, to continually speculate about how life will be different when our plans become reality. We live in the future; the present goes largely unnoticed. Thus we imagine how our life will be not only being married, but about the children that might result, the house and the neighborhood we will live in, the schools our children will go to, and the friends we will make. New businesses and careers are closely tied in not only with rising expectations of personal satisfaction, but also with how much more money we will have available to spend on housing, automobiles, gadgets and vacations. Retirement expectations are particularly treacherous, as they come near the end of our lives when our ability to recover from wrong choices is muted, due to age, energy and health.

Disappointments, then, are inseparable from expectations. We can have all sorts of hopes and dreams, but if we don’t believe they will ever come true, we will never suffer disappointment. It is in the process of making our dreams real that we give them the flesh and bones so necessary for life. Yet it is this flesh-and-bone detail we invest in our dreams that gives them the power to hurt us. Perhaps that is why James, Jesus’ half-brother, warned his flock:

“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow” (James 4:13-14).

It’s true. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, next month or a year down the road. In today’s climate of terrorism, that is particularly true. How many of those 3,000 or so fathers, mothers and children who went into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon the morning of Sept. 11 thought it would be their last day on this earth? How many of them would still have spent the same amount of time and effort feeding and clothing the expectations born of their dreams about the next year had they known Sept. 11, 2001, was the last day given to them?

Our culture is the collective product of millions of individual dreams, plans, expectations and anxieties about tomorrow. That’s why, as a culture, we ask young people to forego work, attend school, go to college, become research scientists and search for tomorrow’s wonder drugs. If they weren’t concerned about their next year, would they do all those things? Or would we still be a culture that spends our day gathering food, collecting firewood and killing the odd stray animal for the dinner fire?

We plan for tomorrow because we live today on this side of the veil. We have Jesus’ teaching, but we lack His perspective. I guess that means trust and obey, or go our own way.