Human Matters column: ‘I’m disappointed in you’: Reproach’s nuclear option


When I stand back and observe law enforcement and military service in the United States, the sheer swath, depth and breadth of options is impressive. It’s a continuum that begins with mere presence and ends with a thermonuclear strike.

Presence. Visibility. Clear communications with civilians. An understanding of the law that is at once clear, impartial and fair. Then questioning. Detainment. Arrest. Arraignment. Sanctions and penalties. Fines, probation, suspensions, prison.

Use of force? Good training in nonlethal, hand-to-hand apprehension. The goal is to subdue; not to injure, not to punish. The use of a baton or flashlight. Pepper spray. Tear gas. Taser. Water hoses. Beanbag guns. Bullets. Bombs. DEFCON 5, 4, 3, 2 … then 1.

It’s a logical progression. There are a lot of choices between presence and H-bomb. And that’s as it should be.

So, I stand back and observe interpersonal relationships — spouses, lovers, friends, parents and children, siblings. What’s in that arsenal? What are the breadth and depth of choices during times of conflict?

I challenged myself with this question: What is DEFCON 1 in these relationships? My answer surprised me. It might surprise you:

“I am disappointed in you!”

Most times, modern people use the word “disappointment” colloquially. That is to say, we use the word to describe unmet hopes or expectations in events and experiences. I can be disappointed, for example, that my favorite Mexican food restaurant (Viva Mercado’s) suddenly disappeared. I might be disappointed in a new film. A book. In the outcome of any given Green Bay Packer season that does not end with a Lombardi trophy.

I can use the word “disappointed” in this same colloquial way when someone can’t, won’t or doesn’t realize my presumed expectations of his/her potential. In this sense, I can be disappointed in an American presidency, in a professional athlete’s career trajectory, or in the laziness of a gifted artist. In this sense, I have more than once been disappointed in myself.

If I keenly desire something, and I don’t receive what I desire, I am disappointed. If I have an urgent attachment to a given outcome, and the outcome does not transpire, I am disappointed.

But, still, this is a colloquial use of the word “to disappoint.”

In its middle-English and old French origins, the word is quite literal. If I appoint you to a particular ranking of prestige, power, authority, honor, etc., then I retain the power to disappoint you. In French, the word is closer to “dispossess.” To “let go of.” To relinquish.

You are no longer appointed the same status in my view or in relationship to my life. You are officially demoted. This is not, colloquially, “I am disappointed.” This is, “I am disappointed in you!”

Do you feel the power of it? The weight of it? The near ungodly presumption of it? The daggers in it? The hubris? The shrapnel? The savagery? Can you feel the nuclear fallout?

“I am disappointed in you” is an awful, consequential, powerful and sobering thing to say to someone you love. It should be uttered in only the most extreme, morally egregious circumstances.

I have three sons. The older two, now 23 and 21, have each once heard from their father’s mouth the words “I’m disappointed in you.” One was in the fifth grade. One was in high school. Once, I say. In both situations, I believed a core value was at stake. But still, I’ll never forget the hurt in their eyes, respectfully. How important it seemed to immediately follow those words with a helping hand to repair the bridge between us. To give them a way back to their previous “appointment” in our relationship.

I have a friend who got a drunken-driving citation. Does that fit my values? No. But the words “I’m disappointed in you” never occurred to me. Not once. You should have seen his face. Here’s a life tip: People rarely need help feeling badly about themselves. And here’s a companion tip: People can use all the help they can get to face their authentic remorse, their real guilt, to make things right, and to find some semblance of compassion and mercy for themselves to the end they might be “re-appointed.”

“I’m disappointed in you.” It’s DEFCON 1. Such words should never leave our mouth to anyone we love except in the most extreme circumstances.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at skalas@reviewjournal.com.

 

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