How to Overcome Disappointment and Keep your JOY!

It was by far the most thrilling day of the entire school year. Each hallway and classroom displayed an explosion of hand crafted decorations. The tantalizing aroma of Christmas goodies hung like a thick fog, consuming every corner of every room. It was nothing short of hypnotic!

By mid afternoon the pandemonium had escalated to a fevered pitch. And the reason was a secret to no one. Weeks of anticipation followed by hours of celebration culminated into the most anticipated event of the day. At long last, the Student Gift Exchange had finally arrived.

I was in the third grade and my teacher, Ms. Wise (no joke) actually expected us to sit quietly until each and every present had been received? Considering the mass quantities of sugar pulsating through the bloodstream of so many eight year olds, one would hope for a more realistic expectation! I suppose it seemed reasonable to an elderly single woman with no children. LOL!

At last she made her way towards my desk. But when I observed what she was carrying my exuberant heart tumbled into my stomach like a giant lump of coal. There was no beautifully wrapped gift in her hands. No lovely bow with shiny paper. Instead she was holding what appeared to be a ball of aluminum-foil.

Tilting her head slightly downward with an awkward wince of embarrassment, she hesitantly presented me with the horrifying monstrosity. My initial reaction was total confusion. Surely my name was not on THAT. It wasn’t even a present. Who in their right mind would give a ball of crumpled aluminum foil as a Christmas gift?

Fighting back gigantic crocodile tears, I quickly snatched the unsightly display off my desk. Clutching it tightly to hide the evidence, I felt something wrapped inside. Should I open it? “Maybe I’ll just shove it in my book bag and open it at home,” I whispered to myself. Surely nothing of value could possibly exist inside something that unsightly?

Soon my eight year old curiosity got the better of me. “Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks,” I reasoned. Maybe something good was inside after all. With eyes straight ahead and emotions at bay, I slowly pushed back the foil with my fingertips. That’s when embarrassment gave way to complete bewilderment.

It seemed my very special Christmas gift was not all that special. Inside the crumpled ball of foil was a small plastic donkey. The kind of humble little grey burrow one might see in a Nativity Scene. It had very sad eyes and a bowed head.

A donkey! A plastic donkey! What on earth can you do with a plastic donkey? Just to add insult to injury, it wasn’t even new. Everything in me wanted to stand up and scream, “An old scratched-up plastic donkey! That’s my Christmas gift! Are you kidding me?”

My mind quickly recalled the shopping trip from the previous week and how much time I invested searching out the perfect gift for the classmate assigned to me. It was wrapped with tender care, by yours truly. Then finished to perfection with a lovely bow! Yet in spite of my tireless efforts, this is what I get in return? What a cruel joke. What thoughtless insensitivity! Who did this? How? Why?

Even though that event happened more than 40 years ago, the feelings are forever branded in the deep recesses of my memory. It was one of the biggest disappointments of my childhood, which brings me to the point of the story.

Sometimes we give our very best to people and circumstances only to receive a Plastic Donkey in return. Sometimes situations over which we have no control cause embarrassment and heartache, leaving us with a stomach full of disappointment and let-down.

The dictionary defines disappointment as, “sadness from the non fulfillment of hope.” Like you, I’ve had the wind taken out of my sails on more than one occasion, hoping for one thing but receiving the opposite. And a few times it felt like the mast toppled over as well. I suppose the bigger the expectation, the bigger the disappointment and the deeper the hurt.

But what if the sadness factor was optional? What if we could overcome those deflated emotions and bounce back with a fervent determination to reclaim joy? I’m not suggesting that it’s easy. But I am saying it’s possible. That’s why I want to share three responses I’ve used to bounce back from the Plastic Donkeys of life and reclaim my joy.

The first response is to “Keep it in Perspective.”

A few days after the Christmas party, my mother learned the details behind the gift I had received from my classmate Teresa. It seems her family had fallen on very hard time. The father had recently lost his job and her mother was fighting a serious illness. Teresa’s family had no money and no insurance for medical expenses. In fact, the community was providing money for food and other basic needs. No doubt, they were facing a very bleak holiday season.    

Conversely, my family lived in a beautiful home. Not a mansion by any stretch. But it was a comfortable spacious house in a very nice neighborhood. My father had a good job with great benefits. We had two cars in the driveway and everyone was healthy. Our lovely Christmas tree was made even more stunning by the circle of beautifully wrapped presents too numerous to count. Things were looking merry and bright for our family holiday.

My mom also explained how that little plastic donkey was part of Teresa’s family Nativity Scene. It just so happened, the little sad burrow was her very favorite character piece. In actuality, Teresa gave me something very near and dear to her heart. She gave the best she had to offer. You might even say her gift was sacrificial.  

Although my hurt from the disappointment was real, learning more about Teresa’s situation shed new light on the entire event. It helped me view it from a higher perspective. As a result, my disappointed heart was transformed into a heart of compassion. Keeping it in perspective gave me the emotional strength to keep my joy.

The second response is to “Keep Giving Your Best.”

When we all returned to school in January, I started the year with decision to give Teresa what she had given me… her very best. For the remainder of the school year I poured into her life as much as possible. I helped her with homework so she could make better grades and sat with her at lunch so she wouldn’t be alone. Because we were the same size I talked my mother into letting me give her some of my clothes and shoes.

Yep. Teresa and Tawana became best buds, and we both excelled because of it. She discovered there was a great student on the inside with the ability to learn and grow. I became more thankful and discovered leadership abilities to influence and inspire others to excel.   

I believe one of the keys to overcoming disappointment includes staying true to our core values in the midst of the pain. That includes making a determination to give your best regardless of what other don’t give you. Think about it like this. If you want to keep your joy, then engage in activities that set you up to achieve it. After all, it’s really difficult to give your best while experiencing sadness at the same time.

The third response is to “Keep Looking for the Good.”

Last December, on one of the coldest days of the year, I got caught in a huge traffic jam on the way to have my car heater repaired. The temperature was 35 degrees outside and only slightly warmer inside. Not exactly the best day to be stuck in traffic with no heat.

While sitting in my very frigid car, staring at a line of traffic that seemed to extend across the entire southeast, it brought to light another important truth about overcoming disappointment… There’s a big difference between being cold and being left out in the cold.  The first is simply an unpleasant circumstance of life. The second is a distressing place in life.

 In the same way, there’s a big difference in being disappointed with a temporary situation of life and being disappointed with life in general. Most disappointments we encounter are nothing more than temporary unpleasant interludes between other normal events. Problems arise, however, when we allow the occasional let downs of life to create a fatalistic attitude towards life.   

I’ve discovered the most effective way to avoid this pitfall is to maintain a posture of gratitude while you’re in the disappointment. Shivering in the car that morning, my choices were very simple. Either complain and grumble or be thankful and humble.

As with the plastic donkey, I could rant about how terrible my life was because of one event, or I could choose to look for all the good in my life. I chose to wrap up in a warm blanket of gratitude. I decided to focus on the long list of things I was thankful for.

Of course I didn’t relish sitting in a cold car during a two hour traffic jam. But, I couldn’t change it. And, honestly, the situation could have been much worse. So I began to recite (out loud) all I had to be grateful for. Things like warm clothes, a warm coat, warm socks and boots, a full tank of gas, a semi-hot cup of coffee, good health, money in the bank, friends and family who loved me, and so on and so on. 

As I focused more and more on the good, my stress began to dissipate. I became less focused on what was trying to steal my joy and more centered on what would revive it. When we form the habit of looking for the good in the “not so good” we actually train our minds for joy.      

I’m not suggesting we should never acknowledge disappointments. We live in a fallen world full of fallen people doing fallen things. But I am suggesting we use the Plastic Donkey’s of life as a reminder to Keep It in Perspective, Keep Giving our Best and to Keep Looking for the Good so we can keep the joy of Christmas in our hearts all year long!


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