The Problem with Broken Expectations
On a Saturday a few weeks ago, my roommate Chelsey and I decided we would rent bikes and ride to a nearby Farmer’s Market. We walked to Starbuck’s first to grab iced coffees to go, because this is obviously a good idea when you are about to ride bikes during a borderline 100 degree southern summer’s day.
I wore a tank with high-waisted shorts—obviously going for the look of cute, breezy summer girl riding her bike to the Farmer’s Market like the proper neighborhood local that she is. I pictured it to be like that scene in the film (500) Days of Summer where Summer rides down a quiet neighborhood street, her skirt and hair blown delicately by the breeze as the deep-voiced narrator extols her qualities.
Not even a minute into my ride, my bike hit a bump and my iced mocha went flying. Nashville is decidedly NOT flat, and I struggled to pedal up the rolling inclines. The June humidity was straight oppressive. The ride to the Farmer’s Market took 30 minutes longer than we planned. When we arrived, there actually was no Farmer’s Market at all; we hadn’t thought to look up the hours. We resigned ourselves to a nearby bagel shop that also sold smoothies, our iced coffees now just room-temp coffees, sadly thrown away with maybe five sips consumed. We sat in the shop’s weak air conditioning—like we’re talking New England level WEAK air conditioning—drenched in sweat and wholly dehydrated; neither of us had thought to bring water. Chelsey had to be at work within the hour, so we returned our bike rentals and Ubered home—a mile away. I spent the rest of the afternoon incapacitated on the couch.
The afternoon didn’t go as I expected. Because I can relate any aspect of life back to this movie, I’m reminded of another scene from (500) Days of Summer: we watch Tom’s expectations fall under the weight of reality, the filmmakers aligning the two scenes split screen style—Tom’s expectations for how the evening will go on the left, the reality of how events actually unfold on the right—his evening moving from hopeful anticipation of his expectations being met to the disappointed resignation of reality.
Last winter, as I hid under a blanket and bemoaned the graveyard that is modern dating in the city of Nashville, Tennessee (where every boy is contractually obligated to include in his I-don’t-actually-want-a-relationship script: “But I think you’re really cool!”), I told Chelsey that we should just stop having expectations altogether. Because rarely are expectations met, so why bother having them in the first place? I figured I could protect myself from any future disappointment by kicking expectations out completely. Expect nothing, I argued to her.
It’s seven months later, and I can’t agree anymore with that SO OVER WINTER and SO OVER DATING girl, because I think part of being human is having expectations, whether it’s over something silly like a bike ride in June or something that holds emotional weight, like a new relationship. I don’t know that you can separate yourself from that natural inclination to expect without removing yourself from any form of hope.
But what IS the answer then?
Is the answer to befriend disappointment? And if it is, HOW do you do that? How do you open the door for Disappointment when it shows up, yet again, suitcase in hand for an indefinite stay? How do you say, “Hi, Disappointment, come on in” and let it sit at the dinner table with you as you eat your pasta alfredo on a Tuesday night?
Nearly three years ago, I flew across the world to New Zealand. I’ve never been sadder while being in such a beautiful place. As we were driving through this land of mountains and avalanches, I wondered, if beauty can’t heal this broken heart, what can? And then, an answer: love. There aren’t a lot of instances where I’d say, “Yep, that was God’s voice,” but given my anti-love-anything sentiment at the time, I have to believe that the voice that said “love” wasn’t my own.
I see now, nearly three years later, that every time I’ve been disappointed, every time I’ve been hurt, I’ve been met by love—phone calls, care packages, a friend sitting on the floor next to me saying, “I see your disappointment, want to pray about it?”
Maybe the only way to befriend disappointment is to walk through it with someone else. I’m learning that the answer to the disappointments of this life always comes back to love, to people. I hate this, because half the time I’m hangry or stuck in traffic and humans can really get my goat and make me want to go live in a seaside cave, sans any human contact whatsoever (pups, however, are always welcome).
Maybe the answer to the expectations vs. reality question is this: we don’t hide from expectation in an effort to protect ourselves from disappointment; that’s an unhealthy attempt to numb ourselves to hurt. Spoiler alert!!! This is impossible. We will be hurt. We will be disappointed. It comes in the fine print of the Hello & Welcome To Life As A Human Being Instruction Manual.
I think the answer is to allow yourself expectations, even if that does mean facing disappointment if reality doesn’t meet those expectations. But we can take comfort knowing that we weren’t meant to face that disappointment alone. We weren’t really meant to do any of this life thing alone, I’m slowly becoming convinced of this.
This is when love comes into play, and I mean the messy kind. After reading Bob Goff’s crazy love stories in his new book, Everyone Always, I fell into an unhelpful trap of romanticizing what love looks like. I imagined that it would always feel good, that I’d have this warm and fuzzy feeling every time I stopped long enough to reach out in love to someone, whether a friend or a stranger. It would be like Bob described in a podcast episode with Annie Downs, where he sends cake pops to his enemies. I imagined love would be cake pops and confetti and balloons, all the time. And since my life is wholly lacking in all of these (and I’ve yet to come across gluten-free cake pops), I figured that I wasn’t loving enough.
But then Chelsey, in her usual wisdom, pointed out this false idea I had of love as a sweeping, feel-good gesture. And I realized that love is rarely like this, that love is less like cake pops and a lot more like trudging through busted sewage pipes. For a year, I worked for a nonprofit serving refugees; my job consisted of taking new families to enroll their children in school. It was an all-day task: enrollment often took hours, then we had to visit schools, then we had to go to the maddening establishment that is a busy Walmart to look for uniforms. On paper my job was the definition of loving people but I hardly felt loving—as much as I wanted to welcome these people to their new home, 87% of the time I was insufferably hangry, annoyed as hell with the Nashville traffic, and just ready to take a nap. It was tough work.
And that, I now realize, is what love really is: tough work.
But good work. Beautiful work. Necessary work.
And it’s the work of love that meets us when reality doesn’t line up with expectations—whether our own disappointment or the disappointment of someone we love. It means showing up with a bottle of wine and some tissues. It means picking up the phone and pressing the call button again and again and again. It means waiting with someone in their disappointment, not trying to push them along to “see the silver lining” and thus relieve you of your obligation to keep watch through the night—literally and metaphorically—with them.
I think we should let ourselves have expectations, despite the risk of disappointment. And when we do fall, when reality does dropkick us in the face and we’re left with our shattered expectations, we turn to the only thing that will let us kintsugi the mess out of those broken expectations—to pick up these pieces and meld them back together with gold. It’s inconvenient, and you’ll probably be hungry half the time. But it’s love, and it’s real, and it’s the only answer.
Windrose Magazine is your guide to navigating life in your twenties through a collection of essays, interviews, and advice that will inspire you to chart your own life course, free of comparison.
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