1. Great Expectations
My two and a half year old wakes up crying in the night. His nightmares recur with similar themes. He drops an ice cream cone in sand, or he wants his banana whole but his father cuts it up. Maybe I take away his toy. He works through the same situation again and again. Expectations had and expectations lost.
In waking life, it is the same. He races out of his bath dripping naked and rogue. He expects to run to me laughing, but his father snatches him up. Dad intends to dry him off, but Henry doesn’t understand. He expected one thing and did not receive it. A melt down ensues.
We’ve tried to talk him through it. You know, the whole take-a-deep breath routine. We’ve condemned him to timeout. We’ve played out scenarios, fed him lines.
“Whoops! My ice cream fell! May I have another?”
My advice feels stale after a while, because, to be honest, I’ve yet to master the art of disappointment. I can throw my own grown up tantrums and sulks with the best of them. You’d think I’d learn.
“You’re not good with disappointment,” My husband tells me, my sister tells me, my mother tells me, and yet I insist on setting (and resetting) those expectations high.
It’s like a disease–some neurotic impulse that I can’t seem to control. I romanticize and inflate future events, and when something goes wrong, I crumble.
2. Wait. Before you Judge
Have you ever gotten angry while stuck in traffic? Or maybe you’ve cursed the person puttering along ten miles under the speed limit ahead of you. You expected a trouble free commute, and when your expectations weren’t met, you became angry. (The philosopher Seneca believed that all anger is rooted in optimism.) If you’d started out your morning expecting a delay, you may have taken it all in stride.
3. The Happy Half-Empty Glass
The tag line for a wonderfully witty “Sunday Sermon” by the School of Life (hosted by Alain de Botton) suggests the following,
Here are a few basic truths: life is essentially meaningless; your hard work won’t dictate where your life goes; you will be struck down by death; and your loved ones and your achievements will whither and turn to dust. A grim way to look at things perhaps. But a long line of philosophers, starting with the Stoics, have seen wisdom in taking a dim view. As Alain de Botton points out, a pessimistic outlook reduces our expectations, our envy, our disappointment, and it creates room for emotional upside and healthier life decisions.
Even if you don’t agree with the “life is meaningless” exertion, you’ve got to concede the others. Sure, Alain de Botton’s suggested pessimism makes me laugh. My Disney childhood has placed me in a position to view such advice with discomfort and skepticism. But I think it makes logical sense.
It makes logical sense, but I’m not sure if pessimism is in my blood. I’m not sure I have the stomach for it. I can’t help but get up when I get knocked down (again and again and again).
All the following situations flare my excitable need to expect:
- Life Goals/Ambitions
- Mother/Child experiences
- My children
- Nap times
And those are just to name a few.
And what about the fuel our expectations/hopes can provide for us when we pursue those more difficult goals (i.e. I want to forge a career as a writer.) If I thought pessimistically, maybe I’d give up (though, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t, which is maybe the idea.)
5. A Case for Madness
I’ve experimented with an alternative to pessimism: illusion.
Truly! when life isn’t enough, you can sort of beef it up a little bit.
I am an excitable person who only understands life lyrically, musically, in whom feelings are much stronger as reason. I am so thirsty for the marvelous that only the marvelous has power over me.
Anything I can not transform into something marvelous, I let go. Reality doesn’t impress me.
I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy, and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. No more walls.
Writes Anais Nin–who didn’t have children–and I rallied behind quotes like these differently before I had them, too.
But really, there’s always poetry, reflection. I can imagine more meaning than may truly exist. I can imagine meaning, project meaning, insist on meaning. I think that’s how it is done.
(When hard times come, don’t so many of us turn to that adage, “Everything happens for a reason”?)
6. Bad Parenting Advice?
But how in the world do I work this out in an honest way with my two and a half year old? It’s far fetched to tell him that there’s meaning in his accidentally cut up banana, though I have repeated to him the When-Life-Hands-You-Lemons advice, and that’s sort of like telling him to create his own meaning, which is kind of nice, but I still don’t think he gets it, even on the level of lemons and lemonade.
And the alternative: telling him not to expect much, is far too depressing.
Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe he should expect the world–he should expect everything from the meaningful to the meaning less, to joys and disappointments and surprises, love loss, etc, etc.
But who am I kidding? He’s two. I’ll probably just stick to take-a-deep-breath. I mean, it’s a good start. Even for me.