Disappointment lies in the gap between expectations and reality.

Unless of course you keep your expectations really low, below the reality line, in which case, you probably come across as a pessimist who is surprised a lot, which probably makes you seem a little unbalanced to your friends. I do that. More often, though, when the butter slides off the pancake, I get caught in the trough between what I hoped would happen and what did happen. Then there’s a lot of indignation and words like “shouldn’t” and, “what” and, “the” and, “hell.” As in, “She shouldn’t behave like that!” and, “Since when can gerbils chew through metal? What the hell?”

I used to think that the sweet spot to avoiding that disappointment was to lower my expectations just enough that they would line up exactly with reality and then I’d never be disappointed by someone letting me down, a situation going sideways or a loose gerbil eating my paperbacks. Turns out that that line up is a tricky proposition and well nigh impossible to locate: reality is too inconsistent to plot. So I either ended up pessimistically underexpecting and looking silly – “Human flight is just so improbable… Oh, wait – we’re landing?” – or still overexpecting and feeling foolish, “I hope he won’t do that again… Oh, wait – he did?”

I’ve been talking with a Buddhist for a while and it turns out there’s another option. Buddhism advocates abandoning expectations altogether. This isn’t so you can avoid being disappointed. It’s because expectations and the resulting disappointment or elation cloud your ability to see the situation as it is, and that is a bad thing. If I’m navigating my disappointment, chances are I’m not seeing what the gerbils are actually up to (which might be interesting or just clarifying, like if they’ve gotten their hands on some files and are sharpening their teeth) or what unforeseen market opportunities metal-eating gerbils might present.

At first, I thought abandoning expectations meant abandoning what I’d learned through experience and naively opening myself up to even more disappointment (i.e. “I expect nothing,” equals, “I know nothing,”) or, related, abandoning my good judgment about avoiding a bad situation in the future. Not so, apparently.

Learning from history and planning accordingly are still part of the landscape – just not in the moment itself. If I’m upset by the marauding gerbils, I can decide ahead of time to build a reenforced concrete pen. Or abstain from keeping rodents entirely. I can plan to show up late when meeting a chronically late friend or not to be friends at all with someone chronically unreliable. Once I’ve sorted all that out and agreed to enter a situation however, expectations of how it will turn out are better checked with my coat.

It’s a good plan and it’s worked well when I’ve been able to implement it. You can just take it all in as it comes. It’s a tough habit to get into though when there’s conflict involved. Heading into a difficult situation with your eyes wide open is no walk in the park. I used to arm up with defensiveness (the negative expectation) or unfounded optimism (the positive expectation). Now, I try to just show up and see what happens.

It definitely gives me a clearer view of what’s happening, but sometimes what’s happening is pretty difficult to take. Without expectations, I don’t get angry anymore, I just get sad. What do you do then? Well, a guy I worked with for a while used to say, “Facts are friendly,” and he was right: it’s better to know what’s up even if it sucks. A clear view gives you the chance to correct your course rather than continuing in ignorance down what could very well be a wrong road that ends up nowhere nice. If you eliminate expectations, the reality of the situation is neither bad nor good, it just is. It might make you sad in the short term, but that’s no worse than being disappointed and indignant. It’s what you learn from that reality and what you do with that knowledge that matter. Now, at least, you’re starting from a solid platform of observation rather than trying to plot a course through the blur of frustrated expectations.

So. Onward and upward. It’s been a rough week, this last one, with more than a few disappointing surprises, but here’s to a better and calmer continuation on the path to enlightenment.

None of the surprises had anything to do with gerbils, by the way. Why do you ask?


Categories: News, Nuisance, Miscellany


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One Comment on “Wednesday”

  1. September 22, 2009 at 4:16 am #

    Thank you for this. Not only is it beautifully written but it’s put me in a state of calm un-anticipation. Not sure if that’s a word, or a state, but I suddenly feel no need to either expect or predict the rest of the day. Maybe even the week. Not a common London state of mind.

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