A few nights ago, I came across an envelope beneath some old photos. The handwritten label that read “4th-grade disappointment” made me more than a little curious, so I opened it up. Inside, I found a handful of participation ribbons from field day. Initially, I laughed at the big feelings in that little 4th grader. She was so ignorant of life’s true disappointments.
Then, I slowly remembered that socially awkward, small 4th grader. For me, this hadn’t been a one-day disappointment. At the time, those participation ribbons felt like they were the physical manifestation of me: my attempts to be more like the other kids, my shortcomings, and ultimately my failures to succeed at anything I was trying to do. That wave of remembrance was more than a little uncomfortable and eye-opening. I had been so dismissive of my own first-hand experience because time had tarnished my view. With more than a bit of trepidation, I wondered how often I took this indifferent attitude about not only my own past struggles, but those currently being experienced by others.
As my thoughts wandered down this path, it brought to mind an anecdote my sister had recently shared with me. A speaker named Elizabeth Elliot had given talks to college students on the topic of grief. My sister described Elizabeth as a powerhouse, and was particularly impressed by the empathy she displayed. This woman had lived in isolation, lost two husbands, and suffered severe trauma of her own. However, rather than pulling from this wealth of grief for her presentations, she returned to her journals. She had kept journals since she was a teenager, so she reviewed the struggles she had experienced when she was their age.
And, to me, this is precisely it. Elizabeth came beside her audience in camaraderie, and was able to bring herself back to that time. Honestly, it gave me a new appreciation for journals as tools for empathy. We lose so much of our younger selves over time. Feelings and details can get hazy, just like the disappointments of myself as a 4th-grade girl. Fortunately, because Elizabeth could get back into the shoes of her 20-something-year-old self, she did not dismiss those struggles and dismay felt by her audience. She didn’t say, “You have no idea.” Actually, at one point, she went so far as to say that she was a novice at grief compared to some of them.
It hit me hard how easy it is to become dismissive of the struggles we have already conquered — whether as a 4th grader, college student, or first-time employee. Because they are now behind us, our perspective becomes faulty, and we treat those mountains like they are now molehills. It brings to mind the words of Albus Dumbledore, “Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young… and I seem to have forgotten lately.”
And, to be completely honest, I might never have remembered that disappointing day if not for my mother. She was the one who witnessed my grief and recognized the depths that it reached. She looked at that 4th grader and acknowledged that this was big. It wasn’t just a bad day to be brushed off. This was a day of significance. It was her idea to pull out an envelope, and she had me label it with those words. My mother encouraged me to keep mementos, not just of the good but also the bad, because we often forget the struggles we conquer on our path.
This is because my mother firmly believes that pain was never wasted. She always reframed it and gave it purpose — each struggle made me more resilient, and she was so proud of the woman I was becoming. And they weren’t just nice words… that’s not her style. She would back it up with examples of how I had changed and grown.
In the end, I’m not like Elizabeth with immersive journals to provide perspective. Still, because of my wise mother, I do have a handful of small remembrances. They help me remove some bias of experience and provide humility as I open my eyes to the mountains that I had so flippantly called molehills.
So, yes, I can still smile a little at those immense feelings crammed into that little runt of a girl and think, “Oh baby girl, you have no idea all the struggles and wonders that are waiting for you.” But I can also say, “I see you in this moment. I see the disappointment and isolation you feel every day and that, today, it became concrete and too much. I see you, and I feel for you. But I have been there, and it will get better. Just give it time, little one. This is a season. It will not last forever.”
And the next time I see someone else struggling up a mountain I have crested, I hope I take a moment to remember the blood, sweat and tears of my climb before I say a single word about their journey.
Jacquelyn Adams is a storyteller and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, vlogging about the future of work… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.