When my agent was shopping my first book out to publishers, it was an incredibly tense time. I’d done all I could do to set myself up right, and now the decision was out of my hands. For a control freak like me, it was an uncomfortable position.
But what made it harder was how much I felt hinged on getting this book under contract. In my mind, everything else I wanted to do depended on getting this deal for this book at this particular time. The next book I wanted to write, and the book after that, and the book after that? They could only happen if this book happened. The fledgling freelance career I wanted to build out? I would have much better standing with a book under my belt. The more stable academic and research positions my newly-minted MFA hinted at? You know what they say—publish or perish. And my very identity as a writer? Well, writers write things, right? Things that get published.
Of course none of those static boundaries were true, and my life and career would have gone on had things not worked out the same way. It is easy to say that, though, because I did get what I wanted then. The script I wrote for myself, the one so meticulously reliant on each step unfolding just so, went (somewhat) as planned.
But what are so much harder—and, unfortunately, so much more common—are the times when we do plan and work towards something and set up a script for ourselves that does not come to fruition. We want so desperately to accomplish a certain goal that it becomes difficult to see ourselves in any other reality. I see this in my students who are applying for jobs, my consulting clients who are applying to schools or trying to secure agents, and of course I see it so often in the lives of patients. We want a last-ditch medication to do all the things it promises it might; we want the much-anticipated surgery to be 100 percent successful; we want that super-star specialist to give us the answers we need to hear.
We carefully construct this eventual outcome, and we cling to the promise of that better reality because that’s what we need to do to push through all the obstacles and hard work necessary to have a shot of getting there.
We hope for the best, because it is not unreasonable to hope for good things.
Because we have hope we can keep sending out submissions while the editors’ rejection letters accumulate, or the job offers don’t appear, or the letters that arrive in the mailbox are too thin. Because we have hope we work through the side effects of medications, or gear ourselves up for the major surgery and lengthy rehabilitation, or undertake medical interventions with high risk and limited chance of success.
I’ve often heard that the opposite of hope is despair. I don’t disagree with that, but I think the situation is far more nuanced. In the immediate moments of bad news, setbacks, and realizations that what we want is not going to happen, despair is real, and it is palpable. It is the moment when hope does not seem possible. It is an innate emotional reaction, one that manifests itself in different ways: tears that come without warning; numbness; a feeling of emptiness. It is encompassing and isolating. It pulls us off our center of gravity.
But there is an intellectual component to an otherwise emotional experience, and I think that is where disappointment comes into play. Disappointment is not as overwhelming as despair, but it makes demands of us. We have invested so much time and energy into one path, and it didn’t work out. Now where we do we channel that energy and momentum?
It’s a question of readjusting our expectations, and re-calibrating our goals. Whether it was getting a certain job, having a successful surgery, or any number of other realities, when we envisioned the “after,” we saw things unfolding a certain way. We have to write ourselves a new script, and in our disappointment, we don’t always want to do that. New deadlines need to be set, new strategies need to be formulated.
Sometimes, if we’re lucky, our re-writing is only temporary. Sometimes, it is life-changing.
I am often amazed at the capacity we have to hold out for the best possible outcome even in the face of very low odds: when early indications and test results don’t look promising, when other people’s envelopes already arrived and we are still waiting, when it has been three months and an editor hasn’t gotten back to us, or deep down we know we’re not really feeling any improvement on a new medication but we resolve to give it more time.
This capacity for hope is wily like that. It is stubborn, sometimes willfully so. But because of that, eventually we are able to envision other possibilities and are willing to pick ourselves up and start again.