Should We Raise or Lower the Bar?

“Believe me, there is no such thing as expecting too much.” Susan Cheever, American author

“It’s expectation that differentiates us from the dead.” Sheila Ballantyne, American author

“If you have too much expectation, you may come away disappointed.” Dalai Lama

What should we expect – in relationships, in life?

The word expect, from the Latin exspectare, to look out for, has a range of meanings.

On the lighter side, it can mean to think something will likely happen. For example, you will wake up in the morning, your car will start, you will get to work on time, your friend will show up for lunch when she said she would. Synonyms are hope, look forward to, anticipate, think, believe, imagine.

On the heavier side, it can mean looking for something from someone you think is rightfully due, or a requirement to fulfill an obligation. For example, I want you to do your share of chores around the house, we expect you to be here at work by 9 a.m. Synonyms are require, want, insist on, demand.

My late mother-in-law told me when she got older that she had given up having expectations. “That way I’m never disappointed and pleasantly surprised when something nice happens.” At the time, I thought this was sad, almost like admitting, “I’m not going to be getting much.” How can we not look forward to things, have desires? Has she just given up?

Recently, watching Season 7 of “The Good Wife,” I saw a similar exchange. The scene takes place in a bar where Alicia and her new law firm partner Lucca are discussing jobs and men. Lucca, a perky thirtysomething, says “I don’t have any expectations.”

Alicia looks at Lucca with her slightly weary, fiftysomething expression and says, “Really? That seems so sad.”

What does it mean to have no expectations? Buddhists advise letting go of the “wanting mind,” which they consider the source of much suffering. If we stop attaching ourselves to specific outcomes and try to flow with the unexpected, we can be closer to enlightenment, or at least calmer along the way.

On the other hand, some old and new age philosophers advise us to visualize what we want, to attract what we deserve. Expect everything and the universe will deliver. Think and Grow Rich, wrote Napoleon Hill in 1937, setting off a chain reaction of self-help, create-your-own reality books.

So, which is it?

Now that I am older myself, I think I see what my mother-in-law was saying. She didn’t mean she was letting go of all expectations. For example, she still hoped to wake up in the morning (although realized she might not) and looked forward to gatherings with friends and family. These are lighter expectations, reasonable hopes for a healthy person.

What she meant was that she was letting go of unrealistic expectations from people and the world. A devout Christian, she was big on forgiveness and acceptance. The world tested her many times – a mentally ill son, a granddaughter who died of alcoholism, children marrying and divorcing, coming and going.

Living in an old house, she often made requests for help that could seem like demands to family members who were busy working, living their own lives. Was she expecting too much? Perhaps at times. But we all knew she had been unconditionally generous with us (most of the time, anyway).

It has taken me a long time to even begin to understand this in my own life. To see that there is a difference between reasonable and unreasonable expectations and that they sometimes get mixed up. We are all sliding around inside the kaleidoscope, seeing the world and each other with shifting needs and perspectives.

For example, I hope when I go to a gathering that I meet someone interesting. When I start a new writing project, I look forward to learning and being appreciated. These are all possible and more often than not, they do happen. But if they don’t, it’s not the end of the world. I may feel a little disappointed but I don’t lose all hope.

I no longer expect that anyone I meet will become a lifelong friend or even like me. I don’t expect people to change fundamentally who they are or to see the world the way I do. A curious and somewhat naïve person, I have been quick to jump into friendships and slow to realize that others are often more discerning than I am and may not be available for friendship or even friendly complements on the job. They are too busy, too different, too indifferent – or they just have other priorities and that’s okay.

I hope when I post or send out an essay that I connect with at least a few people, make someone laugh or an editor want to publish my writing. But I don’t demand it, or expect fame and fortune. If that happens, as my mother-in-law said, it is a pleasant surprise.

Acts of generosity do happen and often at unexpected times. It pays to keep our minds and hearts open to that possibility with a sense of curiosity and adventure. The bar is fine where it is. No jumping or stooping required. Just keep moving forward.