As a backdrop to this discussion, let me share a little personal stuff about me.
I met my wife-to-be when I was 19 and she was 17. We have known each other for 29 years and have been crazy happily married for 25 years. I think we grow more in love every year. If Brad and Angelina and they knew us well they would probably be like, “Man, we wish we had a relationship like these guys!”
We each always wanted to kids and we have been blessed with a remarkable family. We have four of our own kids and adopted three more awesome kids along the way. We have mostly raised these seven kids. Four have already graduated college, two are happily married, two doing well in college and one in high school. I coached sports teams for most of my kids, attended almost all of their events over the years, walked them to school a bunch, had more family dinners, activities and small vacations than I can remember.
I graduated college with a pre-med and electrical engineering degree, went to medical school, quit to become an engineer, and earned a graduate degree in electrical engineering part-time that was paid for by my first job. I have worked for some of the best, large tech companies in the Chicagoland area for more than 10 years moving my way up the ladder in responsibility. After more than a decade in the big corporate world I wanted more control over my impact so I joined a good friend in his small business and became a partner in 2000 and have been doing that ever since.
My and my business partner enjoy a solid business relationship, friendship and faith. We have been successful in making money and in social enterprise as well, planting a social business in the Philippines in partnership with an amazing ministry that is making a huge difference.
I’ve been part of a dynamic, growing church for more than 21 years now and have enjoyed many different kinds of leadership, engagement, and community with kids, students, young adults and adults.
The Good Life?
I have had a pretty good life and I am not yet 50 years old. If you would have told my college self back in the day that I would enjoy all of these good things in life, I would expect that I would also be pretty free of disappointment and trouble.
The way it actually turned out is, while I am happy much of the time, I can honestly say that I experience disappointment and frustration on a daily basis – some days more than other. Ever few weeks that disappointment can compound into more serious frustration. Every few months I have times where I question what I am doing and sometimes who I am. Every few years I find myself, at times, questioning if it would be better maybe if I didn’t exist any more. Those thoughts are always short-lived, but I do infrequently even question the value of my life.
I share that because I believe that is a somewhat normal experience. It may not be normal to admit it publicly, but I believe it is normal to experience those feelings. If one does not believe that it is normal to experience difficulty in life that can turn into disappointment that can compound into feelings of early depression, then we should be able to deal with it more effectively. If it is normal and expected, we should be able to limit the duration intensity and frequency of disappointment. Learn to fail well, face difficulty well and suffer well.
I believe that not only do we experience ups and downs on a regular basis, but that at all times we have both good and bad in our lives. As Rick Warren said,
“I used to think that life was hills and valleys – you go through a dark time, then you go to the mountaintop, back and forth. I don’t believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it’s kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life.”
I really appreciate how he articulated that because I have found that to be true in my life – I always have at least some good and some bad in my life simultaneously. Not that I want to dwell on the bad, but I want to accept the reality that is there so I can deal with it effectively. I also think we do experience highs and lows as well, but, at all times, both good and bad are there.
Real Christian Don’t Have Disappointment, Right?
Followers of Jesus can put unrealistic pressure on themselves to have a stress and disappointment free life. Difficulty and disappointment are seen by many in the faith as unnecessary things that can and should be transcended as one achieves that higher degree of spiritual connectedness, I’m calling BS on that.
I not only believe, but I have experienced as a matter of fact that following after Jesus will bring more difficulty, stress and disappointment into your life. Jesus leads us into messy and difficulty engagements if we are truly following him. Check out how some of these followers of God/Jesus mentioned in the Bible have felt – just a small sampling:
- Jonah 4:3 – “Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
- 1 King 19:4 – “He (Elijah) prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life;”
- Jeremiah 20:18 – “Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?
- Psalm 13:2 – “How long must I (David) wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?”
- Luke 7:18-19 – “John called for two of his disciples, and he sent them to the Lord to ask him, ‘Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?’”
If you read the Bible from cover to cover, you will find story after story of people who desire to follow God being disappointed along the way – sometimes profoundly disappointed and even depressed to the point of contemplating suicide. That’s pretty serious stuff and it is all right there in the Bible.
Being a devoted follower of Jesus will not exempt any of us from disappointment and trouble in life – in fact, I have found that following Jesus creates more opportunity for disappointment and difficulty. But knowing and following Jesus should help us process difficulty and disappointment in a more effective way.
Common Language for Disappointment and Depression
Let’s get some definitions and common language understood.
Disappointment is a natural response to difficulty in our lives. The prevalence, duration and intensity of disappointment we experience is directly proportional to how we process difficulty, trouble and problems as they flow into our lives.
Difficulties, trouble and problems will come into our life – often. This is a guarantee unless we are completely unplugged from reality. Reacting negatively to difficulties will generate disappointment in our lives. Continued negative reaction will result in ongoing disappointment which can become habitual and chronic. This can lead to what I refer to as cognitive depression.
My definition of cognitive depression is a pre-clinically depressed state cause by our thoughts, attitudes and beliefs. If left unchecked, cognitive depression will develop into clinical depression.
Let’s work backwards. If you find yourself clinically depressed, you need, professional, medical help – and most likely medication. Clinical depression involves serious neurochemical shifts in your brain that can often times only be reversed with medication under professional supervision. Most Christians have no problem seeing a doctor for a sinus infection but some will bristle at mental health visits. It’s the same thing. God gave us doctors and medical science to leverage and steward. Clinical depression is bonafide medical issue like a sinus infection, heart disease or anything else.
If you feel like your thoughts, attitudes and beliefs are in a habitually negative place, you may be in this middle-ground state I call cognitive depression. Depending on the severity of your situation you may want to seek some professional counseling session or even see a psychiatrist. If you have a few people in your life you trust with having your best interests at heart, you may want to share how you’re feeling and have them advise you if you are having trouble making up your mind on seeking professional help.
So, we are back to the beginning with how we respond to difficulty and disappointment as it comes into our lives. How difficulty affects our thoughts, attitudes and beliefs is very important – especially if one desires to stay out of the mode of consistent disappointment that can lead to cognitive and later clinical depression.
Let’s take a close look at expectations. Another phrase we can substitute for expectations is definition of success. My expectations for a particular scenario are really at the same time how I would define success in that scenario.
Expectations are So Important
Why is our definition of success important? Why are expectations so important?
Here is a simple example. I am a huge Chicago Cubs fan. I have been since I was about 8 years old. This last year has been great. Everyone expected this to be another rebuilding year. The definition of success at the beginning of the season would have been to so a little better than last year – maybe get to 500 – half wins and have losses; as opposed to last year’s roughly ⅓ wins and ⅔ losses over the 2014 season. As it turns out, the Cubs greatly exceeded expectations. They won roughly ⅔ of their games – made the playoffs – won the wildcard playoffs, won the divisional series against their arch rivals the Cardinals, and then lost in the league championship series against the Mets.
While I wasn’t jumping for joy when they lost that series – I was still happy. I had hope. I felt great about the season. I was proud of the Cubs and what they accomplished and I am looking forward to next season with great enthusiasm. I am in a good place from a baseball perspective. A warm, fuzzy, happy place.
In 2003 the expectations were a lot different. The spring training edition of SPort Illustrated had the Cubs on it’s cover with the caption,
Hell will freeze over. Cubs will win the World Series.
The definition of success that year was winning the whole enchilada. Nothing else would satisfy. Nothing else would be accepted. Of course, the Cubs lost in the league championship series. That loss was devastating. A young man named Steve Bartman almost lost his life because of it. Die-hard Cubs fans were in agony – many of them actually became depressed.
The end result in 2003 and in 2015 was exactly the same. Losing in the league championship series. But the disappointment generated in 2003 far exceeded the disappointment generated in 2015 – all because the expectations – the definition of success – was different.
Authentic Success is Layered
Same is true with life. If you believe that marrying the love of your life and having a wonderful family and a solid professional career will eliminate most disappointment from your life you are very much mistaken.
That is why I shared so much detail about the happy parts of my life – not to brag – but to underscore the idea that if we define success as being happily married, successfully raising a family, having a successful career, or even living a meaningful, spiritually connected life, we will be inviting opportunity for serious disappointment in our lives.
How you define success is very important.
One of the biggest issues with defining success is the belief that it is one monolithic thing. Like Curly said in City Slickers to Billy Crystal that life is about one thing and you have to find it to be happy. That might make for a good movie line, but it is NOT real life.
Real life is more complicated than that. We need many things in life to be happy. Air. Water. Food, Clothes. Shelter. Security. Meaningful work, Love, etc. We need ALL of them simultaneously. We are layered, multi-faceted beings. We need a definition of success that is also layered and multi- faceted. Please consider the following diagram:
I have found success to be layered, like an onion, or an ogre. Our spiritual connection with God is at the center of my success onion. My internal character the next layer of my success onion. God and Character form what I refer to as my internal success layers. These are “inner” because they a primarily expressed internally and are not directly visible to the outside world, only indirectly visible. You can’t really know the depth of my spiritual life or my character by looking a a recent head-shot picture of me.
The inner layers of success I have found to be the most difficult to work on. They are the foundational pieces that take a long time to lay and develop – with a lot of back and forth, up and down, two steps forward, one step back. They also have limited short-term bang-for-the-buck. It normally takes a great deal of time for their effect to be realized in the “External” layers of success.
The external layers of success in my life are what people can see and feel. It is the realization of my influence on the world around me. My relationships with people – wife, kids, mom/dad, family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, followers on social media, etc. That is the first external layer. The final external layer is my vocation, ministry, career – or for younger folk – high school, college or graduate school.
Where is the Focus?
Most of the people I know are consumed with the outer layers and most older folk I know are most concerned with that outermost layer – vocation/ministry. What they do.
When people compare their outer layers to the outer layers of others, they will inevitably see themselves as falling short. They are not in the career position they thought they would be, they are not having the world-changing influence they always imagined themselves being, their marriage/family isn’t everything they hoped for, they don’t have as many friends, or the quality of friendships they thought they would have, etc.
When we see others and compare, our expectations shift – and our disappointment increases.
If we had or have high expectations for ourselves at the outer layers, we will inevitably, always miss expectations – and become disappointed.
I found in my life, that when the comparisons come, and when my own high expectations – which are not necessarily a bad thing – come to disappoint me, and need to fall back into my lower, internal layers of success to revitalize, recharge and recenter myself. Those lower layers become a solid, yet soft foundation that I can retreat to and land on for support.
I define character overall as the development of character competencies throughout my life. I have come to a set of ten character competencies that I concentrate on: Personal Discipline, Accurate Self-Image, Positive Attitude, Principle-Driven, Mission and Purpose, Integrated Life, Others-Centered, Personal Transformation, Adaptability, and Perseverance. Each one of these competencies gives me valuable tools and strategies to effectively deal with disappointment and difficulties and prevent me from falling into cognitive depression.
God is at the center. That is not a Republican platitude but a reference to the reason and motivation for my existence. My entire spiritual life is formed and developed at this layer. For me this includes, prayer, meditation on and wrestling with scripture, attentiveness to God’s Spirit inside of me, discipling relationships with people I know well and trust, etc.
When disappointment really starts to get to me, I have to retreat to this inner most layer to get back to the basic truth that God loves me and made me incredibly awesome. Ephesians 2:10 says I am God’s masterpiece, his work of art, who was created to do good works that God has already planned in advance for me to do. My expectations and the comparisons I make with other people lose their power of me when I reflect and consider God’s truth about myself, and my life.
My essence, my being is already awesome – already a masterpiece – waiting to be progressively unleashed throughout my lifetime. There is nothing I can do or not do to make God love me any more or less. This innermost layer is my rock – the lowest place I can fall and the highest place I can find meaning and worth.
Easier Said than Done
While it is fairly easy to articulate this in words and diagrams in a blog post, it is much more difficult to practice and live out on a daily basis. All too often when disappointment grabs hold of me I find myself stuck in the outer layers – a spiral that gets bigger and bigger and keeps me away from my inner core.
But the way out is always known to me. My inner layers eventually kick in. Sometimes I need the help of others or a kick in the rear, sometimes I may even need a little medical help, but I have always found my way back to my core definition of success – my inner layers, and it has always been there that I have been rescued, recharged and rejuvenated.
If you have never done it, take some time to create a first draft of your personal, layered definition of authentic success for your life. If you have done it before, go over it again. Make sure it has all of the layers that represent your whole being.
In closing, I will share my latest thoughts on my personal, layered version of authentic success for my life. Check it out. I fall short of it most days, but, it is something to shoot for, and something that redirects my disappointment and difficulty to a better place!
- Inner Core
- Glorify God
- Is 43:7, 1 Cor 6:20, 1 Th 5:18
- Love God with whole heart, soul, mind strength
- Deut 6:4-9
- Love neighbor as yourself
- Matt 22:39, Lev 19:18
- Includes servant-leadership
- Outer Core
- Unleash the Masterpiece
- Eph 2:10
- Helping others become fully who they were created to be
- Be transformed by the renewing of your mind
- Romans 12:2
- Iterative process of excellence always moving forward / growing
- Be fully present in the every moment
- Prov 27:1, Matt 6:25-34
- Integrated / balanced life
- Col 3:23-24, Col 3:12-15
- Develop good habits
- Hebrews 12:11, 2 Tim 1:7
- Inner Surface
- John 17:20-23
- Learn, Apply, Coach
- 2 Tim 2:2, Prov 22:26, 1 Thess 2:8
- Includes multiplication / replication / apprenticeship
- Meaningful partnerships (networks)
- Luke 22:25, Rom 8:28
- Titus 3:14, Is 54:2-3, Prov 22:9
- Outer Surface (Phil 4:8)
- Missional Business / Social Enterprise / Community Development
- Millennial-focused Church Plant