I host a series of breakfasts for Kindergarten parents, and at a recent one I learned a phrase that the Kindergarten and first-grade teachers use to calibrate emotional response to disappointment. Was the situation at hand “a glitch, a bummer or a disaster,” and what’s the difference? One parent told the story of their daughter’s first response to a coveted and long-promised lollipop ring that, when first opened, was cracked. It was a disaster … a big, operatic disaster. But as the parents worked through the vocabulary with their daughter, the accounting moved from “disaster” to “bummer,” and, when a new lollipop ring, this one edible, was on her finger, the situation moved squarely into a “glitch.” Life was not only good again, but also a little more in perspective.
Making distinctions when facing disappointment is hard work, especially when it’s all about you. Sometimes it just feels good to name everything wrong as a “disaster,” even at the cost of being held hostage by that world of self-absorption. But somewhere along the line a framework for thinking, a way to grapple with “glitch, bummer or disaster,” can give a deeper understanding of yourself and your place in the world. Next time you’ll recognize the effect of your own agency in handling disappointment whose meaning, in most cases, you have the power to define. I remember once, a while back, coming home from a day of disappointing glitches, feeling like everything was a disaster and snapping at my daughter, Beth, about her messy room. Beth, one of those kids who seems as if they were born 40 years old, said, “Mom, I don’t think this is about my room but about your disappointing day.” She was right, and the day wasn’t really that hard, certainly not a “disaster,” more of a bummer, actually … just like her room.
The best part of the “glitch, bummer or disaster” challenge is its agelessness. It has all the benefits of a lifelong practice: immediate, lasting and without too much textbook in it. Breathe in perspective; breathe out understanding. My mother-in-law used to ask herself, “Will this matter a year from now?” Rob Evans, educational psychologist, tells us to realize “the difference between a heart attack and a hangnail.” And the Kindergartners, just like most of us, learn that most of their disasters are actually just glitches or bummers in the end.
And the magic of this framing lives in the process even more than the result. As poet John Koethe writes, “The difference isn’t in the details or the destination, but in how things feel along the road.” You can’t begin by calling a disappointment a glitch: you have to get there by feeling it through. There’s a certain learning and self-agency involved, and the more you practice it, the better you become at navigating distinctions. Actually you, yourself, have to move your feelings from “disaster” to “bummer” or “glitch.” It takes first an understanding and then a developing perspective. The further you are able to move down the emotional scale, the more power you have, and you’ll also relegate disasters to the land where they should live: in the exceptional.
I’ve been calibrating my own days since that breakfast with Kindergarten parents, and it has been a healthy calculus. You forgot the dog food you needed and only realized it too late: bummer. You haven’t yet committed a graduation speaker: glitch. You lost those gloves from last year that you love: bummer. Seats on my regular upstate train are all sold out: bummer. You forgot your husband’s birthday first thing in the morning: glitch and bummer. No disasters, but plenty of little disappointments, not lasting and temporary. Just like that lollipop.