I've been thinking about expectations again. I shared in a post a while ago about my friend who told me that white Americans are unhappy in large part because we expect things to be easy, to go well, to be smooth. We have these expectations of a happy life, a successful life, a life of increasing ease and luxury; so when things go wrong, it throws us into despair and upset and trauma. And when things go well, we don't celebrate that because that's what we expected. She told me that in other countries and cultures there just simply isn't any such expectation. People expect things to be hard, to be difficult, to be challenging. As a result, when things go well, there is great joy and celebration at the unexpected positive events. When things go badly, it rolls off the backs of those who experienced it because that was what was expected.
Aislynn and I have been reading the Narnia series. In one book there is a character, Puddleglum, who is a really negative character. He is constantly saying things like, "well, I expect it will all go wrong, but we must try despite the fact that it will all end badly." As you get to know him, you find that he just has these low expectations. He anticipates disaster at every turn, and is, therefore, thrilled and pleased and happy when things go well. His low expectations don't prevent him from trying, from being brave, from doing what must be done. He expects the worst, but he still goes forward with strength and conviction. Still, being around someone who is expressing that negativity, those low expectations, is hard, discouraging, exhausting, and often depressing.
So I find myself wondering, how can we live the way my friend suggested, expecting the challenges and being thrilled by the unexpected successes, and not be a negative presence at the same time? Is there a way to internalize the lower expectations and to find ways to rejoice in the good without being a downer in our language and in our approach to problems?
My own life is rarely easy and never without drama. I think we each have life lessons, challenges that we face again and again until we get them "right" or figure out a way to navigate them. One of my life challenges is how to continue when things go wrong, how to step forward with joy, patience, and love despite the pull to become bitter, cynical, negative and faithless in reaction to the things life has handed me. I've found myself reflecting on a quote from the Life of Pi, "When you've suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling." This is a truth for me. My daughter has a small disappointment and I find myself brought to inconsolable tears over it: she shouldn't have to have small disappointments after what she has gone through, I think. At the same time I am aware of how small it really is. It is both trifling and unbearable. At times I feel close to the edge and at times I want to simply give up, but I am also always aware that we have gone through the worst we probably will, at least in this decade, and wonder why these small things can affect me so greatly when we walked through the big things without hesitation. I never considered giving up in those hardest of times; it just wasn't an option.
I think much of this comes back to gratitude, once again. Gratitude calls us to focus at all times and in all places on what has gone well, on what is beautiful and right and good in our lives. Gratitude does not ask us to turn a blind eye to what is hard or negative. It also doesn't insist on a Pollyanna-ish attitude of expecting everything to be rosy or to end well. But gratitude does call us to see even the challenges as the gifts they are. It calls us to look for those gifts: to see that we learn from the harder things, that we can grow in strength and forbearance through the tough times. More, it encourages us to look around and see that almost always there are gifts even in the hardest moments. We are still breathing - that is something to be thankful for. We have had love in our lives and that is something to appreciate. Chances are that those who read this have enough to eat, a place to sleep, sunshine and rain and flowers and trees, family and friends, music, art, transportation, education, moments to relax, moments of laughter, public parks, places to walk and run and dance, work, community, libraries that can lend us books, vacation days, etc. We may not have all of this all the time, but we have many of these things much of the time. When we can remember this, when we can focus on those gifts that fill our lives, when we can take ten minutes each day to be grateful, then the hard things are easier to bear.
Perhaps that sounds simplistic. I don't want to push away the reality that life is hard. I know there are traumas that must be worked through, losses that must be grieved, problems that need our attention and focus. But taking a few minutes in the hardest times: a few minutes a day, or even each hour when things are really tough, to remember the gifts, the good - that can empower, strengthen and support us as we face the more difficult challenges. It can also give us the courage to try again, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to take the risk of reaching for what we want as it reminds us that no matter what happens, there will always be things to be grateful for, there will always be gifts and blessings to look for and to see. The pains that come our way are part of life and call for our attention. But the gifts that come our way also deserve our focus. And our choice to focus on those good things may enable us to walk with a little more energy, a little less anxiety, and a bit more hope.