Under the mostly-cloudy skies of New Paltz, students are in a state of confusion and despair. With the coronavirus spreading at exponential rates, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the decision to cancel all of our in-person classes for the rest of the semester. For me, this means that my college experience has come to a halt two months too early. I mourn my lost experience with The Oracle, and I mourn my college radio career. I mourn the experiences that I could have had with my friends here.
A sentence that has followed me throughout my life is “disappointment is the worst emotion.” In my family home, this is a common phrase. We claim that all of life’s worst emotions stem from disappointment. If the Walpoles had a family crest, our motto at the bottom would read “don’t get your hopes up” in ornate Latin letters.
Allow me to explain our logic with a few hypotheticals. Let’s say, theoretically, that a viral pandemic were to spread, causing your college — the only place you have ever truly loved — to shut down. That disappointment would be paralyzing.
If a partner were to cheat on you, you would feel betrayed, but also disappointment. Your pain would stem from their failure to meet your expectations. If your mother dies young, you’ll feel grief: disappointment that there were things left undone, unsaid. There is more to disappointment than missed trains and failed tests. Disappointment at its depths can feel like full-fledged grief.
So, to spare ourselves from disappointment, my family has formed an unscientific theory, which makes complete sense in my world: if you don’t get your hopes up too high, you’ll have less distance to fall when disappointment hits.
Even before the all-online verdict, I have been feeling a great deal of disappointment this year. At the moment I am 20 years old and about to graduate college. I have always been a high achiever, but recently I have faltered, feeling deeply sad and unsure of myself. I see all of my tiny shortcomings as the end of the world, and sometimes they stack up so high that they reach eye-level, blinding me. Sometimes it’s hard to see all of my accomplishments through those blinders.
At 20, I will enter what is touted as the “real world” with a cautious sort of optimism. I plan to go into this new phase of my life with reasonable expectations and just enough courage to keep me moving. With my hopes set too high, disappointment could be crushing, paralyzing. Disappointment can make it hard to love yourself sometimes, or to love other people who have disappointed you. But like Fred Rogers once said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring, It is an active noun like ‘struggle.’ To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
Last year around this time, I was gearing up to celebrate my friend Emily’s 22nd birthday. She has an easily excited spirit and the steadfast optimism of a golden retriever, so she spent the whole week before celebrating. She gathered birthday jewelry and listened to birthday-themed music. It was a five-day affair, and with each day I grew more and more anxious. If anything went wrong, it would be a high height to fall from.
The party finally arrived, and as Murphy’s law dictates, the night did not go to plan. Upsetting events occurred and things went awry, so in the morning we were faced with the sort of dark despair that feels out of place in the a.m. light. Since I have not planned a birthday party since I turned 16, I was unsure of how to deal with the fallout — which words of wisdom I could offer. “Disappointment is the worst emotion,” I told Emily, as I set a plate of pancakes on the kitchen table.
For me, disappointment and grief settle in similar places in the body, and these feelings can make me physically ill. They start in my head and move deep into my chest until they are a part of me. If I can’t get over my disappointment — usually in myself — it tends to sink into my stomach for days, sometimes weeks, and sometimes months if my brain chemistry is particularly bad.
Really, disappointment is just Diet Grief. When I am disappointed, I am grieving possible futures, possible jobs, possible friends or lovers. When I am disappointed in myself, I grieve the versions of myself that I would like to be. Getting over these disappointments is never easy for me. And if you are like me (an over-anxious person with an addiction to feeling guilty), heed my words: give yourself a break. My favorite poet Mary Oliver once wrote, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
One day, I would love to follow my own advice, but for now, I am reassured by my belief that most things are random chance. If bad things happen, I will keep living. If good things happen, I will do the same. Though I don’t know what forces drive the universe, I have to let myself believe they are not against me. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes that “The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it. But happiness likewise, in its way, is without reason, since it is inevitable.”
I don’t know what I’ll be doing for the rest of this year, but that is a problem for a different time. At the end of my life, I would like to look back at it all and say, “I did the best that I could do.”
I do not want to let the fear of disappointment get in my way anymore. Instead of daydreaming about cold offices kept at 60 degrees, and having nightmares about not being let inside of them, I want to dream of being surrounded by love. When I am old, or just middle-aged, I hope that I live in a warm place. I hope that I share a little house with someone I love very much in a town with cobblestone streets and stores where they sell cute stationary.
I do not dream of making copies and sending faxes and editing comma splices anymore, but I will do what I have to do. I am graduating college, and that in itself is an accomplishment. For the first time in my life, I might want to try living wildly. Perhaps I will even buy a skateboard. As I roll over loose rocks and gravel, I will take a deep breath of fast summer air, and raise my hands into the sky in reverence, folding them only to give my fear of failure the finger.