“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”Estella, Great Expectations
Irony is one of my favorite literary elements to teach. We define irony as the discrepancy between what is expected and what really happens. While sometimes we see irony producing positive results, overwhelmingly in literature irony is used to show some failure or disappointment that a character is facing. The entire novel Great Expectations is about just that. All the characters in the story have, as the title suggests, great expectations for what they will achieve. And all of the characters are disappointed to some extent with the reality of their lives. In fact, we could argue that none of the characters really have a satisfying ending because none of them achieve what they set out to achieve. However, in the process of dealing with disappointment and the failure of achieving their great expectations, the characters do make great strides in their character development. They become different people. Some of them become better people, and some of them become worse people. Regardless, their disappointments and their failures shape who they are.
Even though I’ve read this novel several times, what hits me the most at this point in my life is how the characters never really overcome the disappointment of their experiences. That is what makes the novel so relatable. We all have expectations for ourselves. We have goals and dreams and visions of what will come. Oftentimes our expectation does not match our reality, and the gap between expectation and reality creates disappointment.
2020 is a great current example of disappointment. When the new year started, everything was about the great potential of this new year. Everyone was claiming it as their year to achieve greatness. People were even making jokes about how the holidays seem to line up perfectly on the calendar, so what could go wrong with this year? Enter Covid. All the expectations of what this great new year is going to bring came literally to a dead stop as the world shut down. Reality has crushed all the expectations of the year, and most of us are left pretty disappointed. Now, social media is filling with posts and memes about how everyone is looking forward to 2021. We are setting ourselves us for more shattered expectations; everything won’t magically change on January 1, 2021. Oh, irony, there you are.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve realized how much the disappointments of my past have left a lasting mark that I am still wrestling with. I am so incredibly happy and satisfied with where my life is now, but the disappointments of my past circumstances occasionally overwhelm me with grief and hurt. My natural inclination is to isolate myself, to put distance between myself and the potential for future disappointment. You see, I like teaching irony but I’m not a big fan of it showing up in my life. I want my expectation and my reality to line up. Distancing myself from others, refusing to engage in life, keeps me from experiencing disappointment.
Protecting ourselves from disappointment also stops us from growing, though. It stops us from enjoying life or possibly achieving those great expectations that we have. Paul repeatedly uses the language of running a race to describe how Christians approach life. In Philippians 3:12-16, Paul writes, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” (ESV). The mark of maturity is pressing forward, continuing to pursue God and His calling regardless of setbacks and disappointments.
When we pursue God above all else, He uses our disappointments to make us more like Him.