This homeless cat’s life is a lot harder than mine, and it complains less.

Yesterday, I suffered a minor disappointment: a short, low-key vacation I’d been thinking about and planning for a few weeks has turned out not to be the practical thing for financial reasons and therefore isn’t going to happen this year. It’s not a big deal; I know that now and I knew it then. Still, when the disappointment was fresh, I did what I usually do when I don’t get my way: I pouted and wallowed in self-pity like a five-year-old. And what I usually do to counter my wallowing in self-pity like a five-year-old is distract myself — watch TV or take a nap — which has the same effect as slapping a bandage on a bruise: it doesn’t solve anything, except provide a little padding.

Knowing that it wasn’t a big deal and that I was acting like a spoiled child, and acknowledging that this wasn’t the first time that I’d reacted this way — that handling disappointment isn’t my forte and that minor tantrums are a bad, if infrequent, habit of mine — made me realize that I needed to figure out how to grow as a person and not regress to juvenile behavior. So, instead of allowing myself to be bitter about my circumstances, or doing something lazy and self-indulgent to distract myself for a while rather than solve the problem, I decided to do the exact opposite: I did things I didn’t want to do, but that needed to get done. Because the world doesn’t stop for disappointment, and doing something puts me in the present and applies that built-up energy toward something useful. So I swept and vacuumed the floors, did another load of laundry, started the dishwasher, and made a grocery list. I also did a few sets of pull-ups and crunches.

And I felt better afterwards. Part of it was probably due to the rush of endorphins activated by light physical activity, but an even bigger part of feeling better was realizing, while doing the housework, that the source of the problem wasn’t that I didn’t get my way, or that I’m childish for being disappointed; it was that I’d invested too much emotional energy in a projected (rather than actual) future. I hadn’t even made reservations yet (although I did reschedule a dental cleaning for it), but I’d allowed myself to spend a good deal of time thinking how nice it would be to get away from the city for a while, to sit in the quiet with my husband and my dog for a few days, to relax under the stars, wrapped in blankets, and drink a glass or two of wine, and not worry about real life for a while. If I hadn’t allowed myself to get so wrapped up in what could be, the disappointment wouldn’t have been so hard to take.

I don’t think I’m the only one who does this, which is why I’m sharing, and it goes beyond little vacations to larger life issues. It’s a perspective and a cycle fostered by cliches like, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” In reality, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes things don’t work out exactly the way you’d imagined they would. And just planning and dreaming about something doesn’t entitle you to receive it. Sometimes you’ll be disappointed. And, quite often, achieving those dreams requires lots of time and sacrifices you won’t want to surrender; it doesn’t necessarily come easily.

But that doesn’t mean that life sucks. I think the way to prevent disappointment (not entirely, but a large portion of it) is by not investing so much of one’s emotional energy in the projected future. I’m not saying that it’s bad to want things, to hope or plan for things — that’s not true at all. What I’m saying is that by wanting something tenuous so deeply, by steadfastly committing ourselves to a dream, we’re only hurting ourselves. Instead, we need to focus most of that energy on finding satisfaction in the present, in things that are, rather than what might be. Because it’s true that life — even a life that lasts 120 years — is short. There are so many small, simple pleasures around us — like drinking coffee or tea in the early morning and watching the world wake up around us — that we miss if we only look forward to things that might happen, to things we might have someday. By living in the present, appreciating what is around us — what is — the projected future matters less. It allows us to look forward to things without investing ourselves in them, so that if they don’t work out the way we wanted them to, we can more easily shrug our shoulders and move on. It’s true for both big disappointments as well as small ones. Because, yes, we are the creators of our own happiness, regardless of our situation, regardless of what happens to us.

A quote to close:

“And to serve your own mind so that sadness or joy do not sway or move it; to understand what you can do nothing about and to be content with it as with fate — this is the perfection of virtue.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 4, trans. by Burton Watson)

Thanks for reading. As always, you’re welcome to leave a comment below.