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Tales of the Unexpected

If, as I have done, you peruse the internet in search of quotes which relate to expectations you will find they can be categorised quite neatly into three areas: commerce, competition and autonomy/personal growth. The commerce ones invariably rotate around exceeding the expectations of customers. The competition ones involve defying everyone’s expectations in order to lay waste to the opposition and the autonomy/personal growth ones direct you to reject the expectations of others in pursuit of acquired serenity. An awful lot of people from diverse walks of life and varying levels of expertise seem to have something to say about the subject and there is a clear link between expectation management and success, whether public or private.

A pattern is discernible whereby high expectations seem to be predominantly linked to success in the public sphere whereas lowered or rejected expectations are touted as key to success of the more private, internal kind. Joan Didion offers this:

To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.

Bruce Lee strikes a more defiant note:

I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.

And Michael J. Fox has this pearl:

My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.

All nice, pretty things to say and easy for us to digest rationally but as ever, the difficulty lies in how we apply to our own lives such sage advice in a pragmatic way. A good place to start is to clarify the nature of an expectation. To understand an expectation is to understand the difference between faith and knowledge. Knowledge is something that is evidence-based and dependable. It brings a reassuring level of certitude to our lives. Faith is hope based on an interpretation of evidence allied with some sort of morality system (and arguably a modicum of fear and superstition). Expectations can be filed under the latter.

If you can accept that essentially nebulous and unpredictable aspect of expectations you probably don’t have too much trouble when your expectations are not met. You shrug philosophically and think ‘that was to be expected’! Humans however, are the great ignorers of evidence. We are also the great interpreters of evidence. We mould evidence to suit our self-interest. This proclivity for manipulating what we would otherwise learn from can be summed up in one simple word – denial. Denial sets us on a path of endless disappointment because we never touch the dial on our expectations radio. We are forever listening to the same tunes on the same channel and we assure ourselves our judgement is sound by believing there is nothing worth listening to on any other channel, station, frequency or airwave.

So why do we do this? Why are we so reluctant to admit the presence of something new? Why are we so determined to adhere to our monochromatic perspective of what’s in front of us? Perhaps it is because we crave more of that certitude referred to above. We don’t want things in our lives that we can’t control so we fix them in place even when they are patently unfixable. And by unfixable I do not mean that which cannot be repaired but rather that which cannot be made rigid and immobile. Now that is a perfectly reasonable approach when dealing with inanimate objects like kettles and taps and door handles but unfortunately we have a habit of applying our ‘fix it’ system to our fellow human beings. And the better we know them the more likely we are to do it. That is precisely the territory expectations start blowing up in our faces, leaving us floundering in the absence of Plans B, C, D etc.

I believe everything is linked to memory. Our memories hugely inform our expectations. And our expectations prompt the majority of our actions. Memory. Expectation. Action. For example, I have a memory, accurate or not, of burning myself on an electric fire when I was a child. The memory is visceral. I feel the heat on my finger. I feel the texture of the element. I smell the seared flesh. I feel the pain. I hear my cry. I feel my tears. As a result of this I expected all electric fires to pose me a potential injury risk. From that point on I kept a particularly safe distance from that type of heating appliance. Inanimate object. Child is hurt. Life experience is had. Wisdom is acquired. Easy. The veracity of the memory is not relevant because my behaviour proceeded from the memory regardless of its accuracy. The memory imprint is what I based my future decision-making on. The memory-imprint that informed my expectations.

But what of our expectations of people? Especially of those closest to us? This is where our memory cards get somewhat scrambled and corrupted and lose much of their usual reliability. There are so many conflicting ingredients thrown in the mix when it comes to our friends and family. There are core touchstones of trust and love and support that we all seem to presume should be there even when there is much evidence to suggest that their absence is just as common as their presence. Then there are feelings of esteem and regard that are rarely fully mutual and often swing fully to the opposite end of the spectrum where bitterness, resentment and insecurity hold sway. Memory itself can be totally unreliable and it frequently lies at the heart of the most acrimonious feuds. And what about the subjectivity of how you weight the things that are truly important? Your bible is another person’s chip paper. It is not unusual for the things you deem essential to be superfluous to others.

Fine. You learn to accept that life and people are a touch more complicated than doors and heaters. But a process of natural selection occurs over time and you put certain people in boxes marked ‘safe’ and others in boxes marked ‘don’t go there’. No problem. But then one day, out of the blue, a ‘safe’ person throws a curveball and dumps a load all over you. What just happened? Where did you go wrong? Is it possible you reduced them to a neat little formula that would never need reappraisal? Did you deny them the possibility of growth? Of change? Of reaction? Response? Of evolution? Oh yes you did – you ‘fixed’ them! There is probably no more limiting thing you can do to a person than stick a label on them. And why do we so easily do just that to our friends and family? Is that the hard-earned ‘knowledge’ born of experience? Or is it the product of complacency and boredom? Is it a form of falling out of love?

A friend once recommended that I should never lend money. He said I should simply give it away without any expectation of repayment. That way, if the money did come back it would be all the sweeter. Perhaps that would be a good approach to those we love. To love them without expectation. To savour and value the relationship but to live not in expectation but rather in hope of its growth and further flowering. Maybe we would then live more comfortably with people not being in the boxes where we last left them.

Are you ready to renegotiate your expectations? To abandon them? 

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