“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”
— Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
When I was a kid, I wanted an Easy Bake Oven. Think about it: a toy in which a lightbulb provides the heat source to bake all kinds of delectable confections and a kid obsessed with delicious goodies. Why wouldn’t the two be destined for one another? But, I never got one. Turns out, I wasn’t alone in my disappointment. The other day I was talking with friends, and someone said, in the stilted tones of a disgruntled 10-year-old, “I never got one either. My mom thought they were stupid.” My own mother’s sentiments exactly.
The Christmas orgy of gift-giving affords many opportunities to think about what to do, or what it means, when you don’t get what you want. Disappointment in the gifts received is only the tip of that iceberg. We hang so many hopes and expectations on the holiday — we want someone to stick a bow on us and say, “You’re my present this year” like in the coffee commercial. We want that moment when we are completely aware that our life is rich and full of meaning (resulting in our buddy Clarence getting his wings). We want to sing in four-part harmony about the white Christmas of our dreams while wearing gorgeous red-velvet dresses…ok, maybe that one is just me! You get the picture, though.
I, personally, have been lucky in two ways. First, growing up in a family with six children and a limited income, I had many opportunities to learn that I might not get everything I wanted. I learned many coping mechanisms for this, from swallowing my disappointment with a 2000 calorie chaser of fudge to learning to be happy with what I did have. Admittedly, some mechanisms were more helpful than others.
The second way in which I have been lucky is that, in the past year or so, I’ve gotten more than I ever expected on so many levels. I won a cruise, for crying out loud, not to mention healing relationships and recovering self-esteem along with some pretty amazing bike rides. And I’ve been learning healthier coping mechanisms too.
Which, it turns out I’ve needed recently. I got so accustomed to getting whatever it seemed I wanted, that I started to forget that life doesn’t work that way 100% of the time. And BLAM! I ran smack up against it: not getting something I really wanted. Had this been something material, like an iPhone or a Nook, I think I would have taken it in stride. But in the realm of emotional desires, I’ve discovered it can be much harder to find a way to manage extreme disappointment. Here’s how I’m proceeding:
1. I remind myself of the Randy Pausch quote, above. Experience, as he refers to it, is just another name for living life as fully as possible. And that is, deep down, what I truly want.
2. I remind myself to be grateful for all I do have. The list is long, and astounds me when I really think about it.
3. I surround myself with people who make me laugh, to balance the private moments when, sometimes, I cry.
4. I take action in other aspects of my life in order to feel positive momentum: craft room clean, check; menu planned for the week, check; Tupperware organized, check. (If you know me, you’d better be laughing at this last one – when have I EVER been the kind of person who has orderly Tupperware?)
In these ways, even the awful feeling of not getting your heart’s desire can be transformed. Not what you expected, but not at all shabby. And you’re able to remember that gifts come in their own time. I believe that hope and patience are excellent qualities to cultivate because they contribute to resilience in the face of disappointment. And because, despite what you feel today, you can never know what the future holds.
Which brings me back to the Easy Bake Oven. I received a Christmas gift on which there was a tag which read, “From Santa: Sorry! I’m a few years late with this. ENJOY!” I’m sure you know what was waiting under the wrapping paper. Sometimes, if not always, you do get the things you want. Maybe in a slightly delayed time frame, or from a source you never anticipated. Being ready for either outcome is, perhaps, what experience is meant to teach us.