“Our true home is in the present moment. If we really live in the moment, our worries and hardships will disappear and we will discover life with all its miracles. Real life can only be found and touched in the here and now.”
This quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, is consistent with so many messages I’ve heard from wise teachers and individuals with significant life experience. While life is admittedly more enjoyable when we live in the present, as humans we inevitably fret over the past and the future. Perhaps it’s part of our fear-response to wanting to impact or control that over which we really have no control. In desiring to control the future and the opinions and actions of others, we also set certain expectations. Thus, we project our idea of what’s ahead– or how we imagine things should be – on ourselves, friends, family and even strangers.
Maybe expectations have a positive place in our psyches because they help us maintain certain standards of acceptable behavior or conditions. When we go to a nice restaurant, for example, we have particular expectations of cleanliness, quality of food, and service. This is reinforced when the list of prices printed on the menu requires shelling out 2-weeks’ worth of salary in order to dine there. Maybe then it is not wrong or off base to have particular expectations, and if they are not met then you can exercise your first amendment rights and make a complaint to the manager or write a nasty review online. That is of course a possible response, although it’s worth noting that it does not preclude us from paying the bill. So did the initial expectation change the outcome? Of course it did not.
Often, expectations lead to disappointment or discord because we are all separate, unique individuals operating with distinct ideas of how things should be or happen. Naturally those ideas may conflict or turn out to be unaligned with those of other people. This leads to a phenomenon in which not only do we realize through some event that our “realities” are inconsistent with our expectations, but usually we take it one step further with some kind of reaction to that sudden awareness. We attempt to change the reality to bring it in line with our original thoughts and in my humble experience this is usually a waste of energy and often leads to an escalation of conflict.
Expectations are inherently established with bind spots. Since we are all human, we are shaped by our upbringing and socialization, and usually guided by our egos. Therefore, we are limited in our capacity to examine the future anticipating all possible alternative views. I recently had an interaction with someone important in my life in which this message became quite clear. While we both planned to spend the afternoon together, he planned for us to go to a friends’ gathering with a group of people, and I planned to have a quiet dinner alone together. Neither of us expressly said in advance what expectations we had, and of course they were quite disparate. I responded with feelings of frustration and annoyance when I realized that his reality did not match my own, and in doing so I subconsciously believed that I could change the outcome in favor of my original plan. Ultimately, I could have chosen a juvenile approach by throwing a tantrum and potentially I would have gotten my way. But would I really? If he had conceded to that behavior, maybe we would have had our quiet time together, but both of us would have been in a sour mood and neither of us would have really enjoyed the experience.
So when is it right to set expectations and hold our ground? Or should we all just walk around so engrossed in the moment that we bend to whatever life throws our way, with absolutely no pre-conceived notion of what we want? Like most of life’s questions, the answer of course lies in some form of balance between the two. I do believe that goals are a variety of expectation we set for ourselves and they are a necessary motivator for personal and professional achievement. The key is our response when the unexpected happens (because it always will!). If there is one thing we control, it’s our attitude and how we adjust and adapt to situations where reality turns out to be misaligned with our ideas. In the case of my experience above, ultimately I recognized that I was having a negative emotional response (not quite an outright tantrum) and I consciously decided to make a shift. We compromised on the plan for the rest of the day and had a great time. I also think the extent to which we communicate our expectations dictates the degree of surprise that occurs when they are different from someone else’s. But the reality is mostly out of our control.
Expectations are normal and goals are inspiring, but life is unexpected. Period. Humans have an incredible ability to adapt and ultimately if we acknowledged that more, perhaps we would be less afraid of our futures and more open to different possibilities. So expect the unexpected and marvel at the wonder of life as it happens in the here and now.