Disappointment – Expectation, Resilience and Spirituality | Review of Religions


Disappointment Expectation Resilience and Spirituality. Man sitting alone and reflecting.
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Professor Amtul Razzaq Carmichael, UK

If any evidence was needed, the year 2020 has proved that it is inevitable that human beings have to face and overcome the sense of disappointment at some stage of their existence. Given the widespread prevalence of the feeling of disappointment, it is surprising that the scientific and social literature relating to disappointment is not more widely available. In this article, we will look at the social and the scientific basis of disappointment and spiritual means of managing it. The Imam and Mahdi of our age, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, the Promised Messiah (as) elucidated some of these concepts in his epic book, Noah’s Ark.

Disappointment and Managing Expectations        

Someone once said, ‘Expectation is the root of all heartache.’[1] The quote recognizes that hopes and expectations are the root source of any disappointment. Some people may lower their expectations and turn into underachievers to protect themselves from the negative experience of disappointment. This may avoid disappointment in the short-term. However, in the long run, they are even more disappointed, as not achieving their full potential leads to an unfulfilled existence.[2] On the other hand, some people develop unrealistic expectations of perfectionism, that is seldom achievable. These individuals despite being successful, remain disappointed as they forget that perfectionism rarely begets perfection or satisfaction. Conversely, some people may become disappointed when they get what they want.[3] Attaining everything that they wished for does not turn out to be a guarantee for success or happiness. Even success, that is perceived as well-deserved, fails to bring some people the expected bliss and happiness and they remain disappointed.[4] In essence, disappointment seems to be rooted in expectations. Therefore, managing one’s expectations may be an important recommended strategy to handle disappointment.

 The Promised Messiah (as) explained the fundamental principle of managing expectations in our day to day life by saying, ‘You are not prohibited from having recourse to the necessary means and appropriate remedies, but you are forbidden to rely upon them. Ultimately, the will of God will prevail. Complete trust in God, if one has the strength for it, is greater than all else.’[5] In essence, one needs to do their best in their chosen pursuit and then put faith in God, whilst not relying on their efforts for the ultimate outcome. This is a golden principle that can save us from negative and toxic consequences of disappointment.

Disappointment can lead to a sense of futility and bewilderment and dealing with this may be challenging. Those who are unable to manage disappointments effectively can succumb to anxiety and depression, that can have a lasting impact on the course of their lives.[6] To successfully deal with disappointment, one needs to take stock of the situation, learn from the incident, and resiliently move forward and feel stronger for the experience. This point can be further understood by following the writings of the Promised Messiah (as), who said, ‘May God open your eyes so that you should realise that He is the central beam of all your plans. If this beam should fall, can the rafters continue to support the roof? Indeed not, for they would suddenly fall and would perhaps even cause a loss of life. In the same way, your plans cannot succeed without the help of God. If you do not seek His assistance and do not make it your rule to seek strength from Him, you will never achieve anything…‘[7]. This is an exceptionally important proclamation. True happiness and resilience come from God; material desires can merely provide a short-lived sense of pleasure.

Disappointment and Resilience                              

Dealing with major disappointments are often defining moments in people’s lives. Effectively and constructively dealing with disappointment can become a process of self-development and contribute to personal growth and enhanced resilience. Developing the argument that disappointment could be a catalyst to seek the mercy of God that leads to the ultimate success, the Promised Messiah (as) explained, ‘…you remain prostrate at His threshold at all times and in all conditions—whether of success or failure—so that He may do whatever He wills. If you do so, then God, who has for so long kept His countenance hidden, will manifest Himself in you. Is there anyone from among you who will implement this and seek His pleasure, without being dissatisfied by His will and decree? So, when you encounter misfortune, you should step forth even more eagerly, for this is the means of your success.’ [8] 

It is a complex concept to fathom; how can we possibly expect success to emerge from the negative experience of disappointment? Modern neurobiology may offer a clue to this. When faced with disappointment, the brain simultaneously produces two types of chemicals called ‘neurotransmitters’— glutamate and GABA, which is short for gamma-aminobutyric acid. The degree of feeling of disappointment depends upon the relative ratio of these neurotransmitters. If more glutamate is released relative to GABA, the ‘disappointment’ signal in the brain is likely to be greater; and the less glutamate is released relative to GABA, the smaller the ‘disappointment’ signal in the brain.[9] The relative ratio of these two released neurotransmitters determines our response to a negative event. Scientists call the process of the dual firing of neurotransmitters, which sets off the human sense of disappointment, a ‘dimmer switch’.

There is also evidence that there are certain brain cells that respond in a positive manner in response to a negative experience.[10] While our understanding of the science of disappointment still remains limited, it appears that disappointment is a dual process and the predominant response of our brains to disappointment may lead to resilience and success. By turning to God at the time of disappointment, we can promote positive energy. Meditation and prayer are known to modulate GABA activity in the brain and hence may potentially re-set the hypothetical ‘dimmer-switch’ in favour of positive emotions and resilience. [11]

The Promised Messiah (as) said, ‘It is inevitable that you should also be tried with various forms of anguish and misfortune, just as the faithful before you were tried. Be on your guard, lest you should falter. So long as you have a firm relationship with heaven, the earth can do you no harm.’ [12] Therefore, Muslims are encouraged to view disappointments as a source of progress. It is recognised that disappointment can strengthen us and the distressing emotional impact of disappointment may impart greater insight and wisdom.[13] But to be able to make these journeys of self-reflection and re-evaluation meaningful, we need to engage in deep thoughtfulness and work through the expectation-achievement-mismatch to learn, rebound and make progress. The Promised Messiah (as) offers a perfect context to comprehend the reality of the feeling of disappointment. He says, ‘Be not afraid of the curses of the world, for they shall vanish before your eyes like smoke and cannot turn day into night. Fear instead the curse of God, which descends from heaven and uproots its victims in both worlds.’

Disappointment and Spirituality                

Where developing resilience in the face of disappointment is an important aspect of one’s social and personal development, disappointment can also act as a motivational stimulus for one’s spiritual development. The Promised Messiah (as) says, ‘You will certainly suffer pain and many of your desires will not be fulfilled, but do not lose heart in such situations, for your God tries you to see whether you are steadfast in His path or not.… Suffer setbacks, but do not sever your relationship with God.’[14] The Promised Messiah (as) emphasised that the disappointments in life are a reminder to align our desires and wishes with the teachings of God. This will bring about a surge of Divine mercy culminating in overall and resounding success. He said, ‘No calamity visits the earth until there is a command from heaven, and no affliction is alleviated until mercy descends from heaven. So, you would be wise to take hold of the root rather than the branch.’[15] No matter how disappointing the experience may be, a strong connection with God serves to safeguard against any long-term or permanent impact of such feelings.

Effectively dealing with disappointment is the key to spiritual development. This helps us to recognise and connect with God. The Promised Messiah (as) explained by saying, ‘You still do not know the extent of God’s powers. Had you known, not a single day would you have grieved over the world. Does he who owns a treasure weep, cry and become sorrowful unto death over the loss of a single coin? Had you been aware of this treasure and knew that at every time of need God is able to fulfil your requirements, why would you look to the world so restlessly? God is a precious treasure; appreciate Him accordingly, for He is your Helper at every step.’[16]

In this confusing world of 2020, where ahead of the death and misery caused by Covid-19, disappointment is rife because of job insecurities, loss of income, unexpected examination grades and cancelled or shortened holidays, turning to God may be a perfect way to make progress. We can all take heart from these blessed words of the Promised Messiah (as), ‘How fortunate are those who cleanse their hearts and purify them of every impurity and swear an oath of loyalty to their God, for they will never be destroyed. It is not possible that God should humiliate them, for they are God’s and God is theirs. They will be safeguarded at the time of every calamity.’[17] May Allah the Exalted enable us to do so, Ameen.

About the Author: Professor Amtul Razzaq Carmichael MD, M Ed, FRCS (Gen Surg.), MBBS, is a consultant. She qualified in 1987 with gold medals for academic Excellence and undertook her surgical training at major teaching hospitals in London, Edinburgh and Philadelphia. She has authored many articles for major peer-reviewed scientific journals. She is a senior member of The Review of Religions Editorial Board as well as Assistant Manager.


[1] https://hbr.org/2018/08/dealing-with-disappointment

[2] https://hbr.org/2018/08/dealing-with-disappointment

[3] https://icpla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Freud-S.-1916.-Some-Character-Types-Met-with-in-Psycho-Analytic-Work.-The-Standard-Edition-of-the-Complete-Psychological-W…pdf

[4] https://hbr.org/2018/08/dealing-with-disappointment

[5] Noah’s Ark by the Promised Messiah (as) p. 22

[6] https://hbr.org/2018/08/dealing-with-disappointment

[7] Noah’s Ark by the Promised Messiah (as) p. 38

[8] Ibid p. 19

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4305433/

[10] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19038227/

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4769029/

[12] Noah’s Ark by the Promised Messiah (as) p. 25

[13] https://hbr.org/2018/08/dealing-with-disappointment

[14] Noah’s Ark by the Promised Messiah (as) p. 25

[15] Ibid  p. 22

[16] Ibid  p. 36

[17] Ibid  p. 32

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