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Contemplating Disappointment

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We've had a small setback at Cura Orphanage in Kenya, where momentum is typically forward-moving and news is mostly good... and this disappointment has me reflecting on yet another aspect of doing non-profit work: What does failure look like?

In this specific case, "failure" seems too strong a term, since our recent setback involves one of our oldest children deciding for herself that she doesn't like the path we have laid out for her -- and deciding to leave the home to return to her extended and far-flung family.

Our commitment to the children we serve is to see them through secondary school, providing a safe, loving home where they can thrive and, of course, commit to their studies so that they have as many options as possible for a successful future as adults in their community. Doing this while the children are very young and still in primary school isn't easy, but it certainly doesn't meet with objections from the kids themselves.

As every parent of teenager knows, however, it is precisely when a child's independence asserts itself most strongly that he or she needs the most loving and careful guidance... and this is challenging even when one's household only contains one teenager or two. What happens when the commitment is to 50, and one insists on an alternative path?

Most of us involved in the home are disappointed that one of our beloved children has chosen for herself not to proceed to secondary school and, consequently and simultaneously, not to live with us. We continue to keep lines of communication open and point, figuratively, to the door that is still open for her to re-enter. But we can't deny that this feels like a small failure, a big disappointment, a moment for contemplating how things could have been different.

In this process of reflection, I'm reminded of a TED Talk I saw not long ago, in which David Damberger shares his experience of making the most of his own project's disappointments. I was struck at his commitment to transparency, to sharing successes, of course, to learning from and sharing failures. He encourages us to reap the rewards that come from taking an honest inventory of a perhaps well-intended, but ultimately fruitless effort so that we can do better next time.

I'm also reminded, as a mother of a teenagers myself, that this moment that feels so disappointing may bear unanticipated fruit. I've certainly seen this dynamic with my own children: The next steps we choose could redefine and perhaps improve our relationship with this wandering child, and allow us to serve her and the others in our care.

I don't think this is what failure looks like. It doesn't entirely feel like success. But failure? Nope.