Expectation – Life’s Largest Denominator

It was 20 years ago, in June, 2000. My mother was waging a war against breast cancer. She had completed her last chemotherapy session. It was a victory of sorts. As expected the White Blood Cell count dropped a couple of days post the session and she developed a fever. The tens of hundreds of trips over the last year had made this the new normal. She was wheeled into the hospital to remain in a clean environment to avoid picking up an infection. A few days after being admitted, on the 13th of June 2020, things took a turn for the worse. She develop septicaemia and her health began to deteriorate. It was noon when we got a call from the hospital saying she was critical. Me, my brother, and our grandmother rushed to the hospital. My mother was drifting in and out of consciousness. She was intubated to assist her breathe as her lungs were beginning to fill up with fluids. We spent sometime with her and returned home. 

I still remember every detail of that day with exceptional clarity. As if, it didn’t happen 20 years ago, but 20 seconds ago. The ride to the hospital, my anxious questions to the doctor, to my father, the ride back home with my brother and grandmother, the prayers that I whispered, the look on my mother’s face and the expectation that things would be alright. When we reached home and we called up the hospital tom inquire if there was any progress, we heard the worst. My father told me that she had breathed her last. It was shattering. I was hoping, expecting that a miracle may save her, but things did not turn up as I envisaged them to.

The events that transpired on that day changed me for the rest of my life. I had this deep resolve to understand why do we build up expectations? Why do we tell ourselves a story – about a person or about a situation? Even when the odds are stacked against us? Why hope against hope?

Having expectations in life brings about unwarranted misery. When you have built up glorified expectations of what life offers and reality then doesn’t rise up to it – there’s a gut wrenching pain involved in accepting and digesting it. What you expect is a story you have told yourself and not the actual reality. This is one my biggest realisations. Everyone in my life, even my life itself is a story that I’ve been telling myself. When life’s narrative doesn’t match the one I’ve told myself, I’m pained and when it does fall in line, I’m elated. Both are again, stories which I’ve told myself.

“Expectations are the greatest impediment to living. In anticipation of tomorrow, we lose today.” – Seneca

Here are two of the biggest expectations that we hold:

  • Our relationships should play out exactly as we imagined. Be it with a spouse when it comes to doing chores, with a child who you expect should listen to you, or a mother who you expect would be miraculously cured. 
  • We should have life figured out by now – the trajectory of our personal careers, where should we be in life – some of the deeper questions associated with life. 

We gift wrap our expectations around everything – people, places, situations, and conditions. We leave no stone unturned. By fixating on these expectations, we are fighting against life itself. Life does not conform to your expectations but runs its own course mired in uncertainty, ambiguity, change, fluidity, and impermanence. Amidst this flux when we fixate on a single premeditated outcome, we are bound to feel let down, and at times sinking into the deepest abyss.

But why does this happen?

  • For starters, expecting something to happen will not actually make it happen. This is akin to a small kid wishing for a tooth fairy to sneak in at night and replace the broken tooth with a surprise. In many situations adults too cling to wishful thinking anticipating that it would turn into reality. It is hard to digest the fact that letting go of the idea that expecting something to happen will actually turn it into a reality. I kept wishing that I could read more, think better and write better without actually putting hard work in to it. I kept wishing that a miracle would save my mother and snatch her from the jaws of death. Expectations and reality diverge.
  • Secondly, in personal relationships we expect that there is an unwritten code of conduct that one must adhere too. We draft an unspoken contract about expectations of give-and-take in a relationship. But it is impossible to predict the actions of humans. My wife expects me to do something that she would normally do for me. In reality I end up doing the exact opposite. That’s how the world works. It works in its own way – not in your way. There is no deed that you have executed, with personal relationships or with situations that binds them to conform to your expectations. Even communicating your expectations doesn’t seem to get people to behave the way you want them to. I impose upon my daughter to keep her room in order; this imposition continues in an infinite for loop. But I don’t seem to get through to her all the time.

Assuming you have authority over your children always and expecting them to hold up their end of the deal constantly is unrealistic. I agree that it is necessary that we set standards for our children so they go on to become responsible adults. Nonetheless, you weren’t always an obedient child, were you? It is not children alone, but even adults who are frequently unresponsive to expectations. They do so not with any malicious intent towards you, but because they act in a manner consistent with their own beliefs. We are acting on what is best to our interests. When these run parallel courses, your expectations will definitely explode. Imagine if you were expected to do things that were not in your best interests, would you take that chance? 

How do we weather this storm?

  • The Bhagavad Gita, one of Hindusim’s oldest and grandest scriptures has a verse:कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन |मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि || 47 ||karmaṇy-evādhikāras te mā phaleṣhu kadāchanamā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te saṅgo ’stvakarmaṇiThe verse proclaims that one must focus only on one’s actions and not on outcomes or the fruits of outcomes. When you are in a relationship or a situation, give your everything for the sake of the relationship or the situation. Do not do so expecting something. That way you are free of the consequence of your actions and you will not have anything to fret about. Also, since you have dived into it with everything that you can offer, you will end up being more satisfied than adopting an approach where you half-heartedly dive into a relationship or situation.
  • The Stoics emphasise that we do not have control over the outcomes of an event. Fixating on just one of them and building up our expectations is a sure shot recipe for disaster. They ascribe to the idea of reasoned choice – which is your judgement about an event. Instead of trying to change the way things are, it would be better to change your perspective about them. When you change your perspective of viewing relationships and situations for what they are instead of what you mean them to be, you develop a mindset that is anti-fragile and active. When our expectations fail us, we normally react. But reasoned choice will help you act. There is an astronomical difference between being active and reactive. 
  • The other well known Stoic practice of negative visualisation – Premeditatio Malorum – helps you visualise a broad spectrum of possible outcomes including negative and unfavourable outcomes. This roots you in reality. The Stoics realised that having expectations was not going to help them grow. They leveraged uncertainty and turned it into a strength. By crafting such techniques they transformed their outlook – of relationships and situations – to become resilient. Developing a resilient mindset enables you to embrace any outcome – from a relationship or situation. You are not blinded by the imaginary path that wishful thinking takes you on. 

I have come to view expectations as a simple mathematical expression:

The higher your expectations, the more divergent your are from reality. When reality does not align with ‘your version of reality’ you will end up in pain.

Accept everyone and everything for what they are. Love everyone and everything as they exist. Life, you will discover is beautiful and full of surprises. 

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