Recently a girlfriend of mine went on a trip to Santorini with her boyfriend (of one and a half years). They’d talked about marriage (they were both for it) and children (two–one of each–they agreed). Back at her overstuffed one-bedroom apartment, she packed sexy underthings and whimsical romantic dresses. Espadrilles. And in Santorini she’d wear them as they drank local wine, too much, and ate fish fresh off the boat. They walked black-sand beaches combing for shells to bring home. “Paperweights,” she said shielding her face from the sun with her hand, and he smiled thinking how lucky he was to have such a beautiful and creative girlfriend. Their Relais & Chateaux room had an unobstructed blue and white view, fine billowing sheers, and a sun-soaked veranda outfitted with an open air two-post Jacuzzi. They did things they wouldn’t normally do. They had nooners and morning sex without brushing. They lazed about pushing powdery dough through plates of olive oil, heightened their foods with lemon and coarse sea salt. Devoured the skin of things. They were swept up in the blend of fab and folklore, purchasing capers from an old Greek woman at the side of a winding road. At night, he applied lotion to her shoulders after their shower and remarked how much he loved her soft scattering of freckles. They were in love. And man was she pissed.
Each leg of their trip, each rich sunset, was spoiled each and every time he let the opportunity to propose pass him by. “I kept thinking this would be so perfect. Just do it now!” And he never did. Ruined her whole taste for the place. She won’t step anywhere near a kebab anymore. Okay, that’s not true, but it sounds true. Expectations can be harsher than the fluorescent lighting in the fitting room of Bloomingdale’s.
That’s the problem with expectation (particularly the type beyond your own control); it can lead to disappointment. I hate to say it, but even when something brilliant happens, if you were expecting it, you won’t be nearly as elated as you’d have been if you were blindsided by it. We overestimate our pleasure and pain when we have time to forecast things. When unexpected surprises creep in (both the magical and menacing), we feel things more deeply.
But how do you avoid having expectations? Realistic or not, they’re still there, with their own pulse, and what do they add to life, aside from a clear declaration, even if only to yourself, of how you’d like to be treated? I’m not talking about the goals we set for ourselves: losing weight, improving the time it takes to run a 5k, not biting your nails (hey, we don’t all have lofty goals). When we tote around Expectation, which I think is more exacting than its vague and fanciful sister Hope, we see life as a series of losses. We taint what might have been a memorable experience with the expectation baggage we manage to check on our flight. And believe me, there’s a reason there’s an additional cost for extra bags: we pay for it in the end.
As much as we hate disappointment, we don’t really learn our lesson. Disappointment rarely alleviates us of expectation. I think it’s the human condition to expect, to find a clearance of hope in our darkest times. Even if it’s easier living without them, expectations give us something to live for. And certainly give us something to complain about.
Sometimes, though, disappointment can be the greatest surprise…
When my father proposed to Carol, he placed a medium-sized clothing box beside the menorah. She was furious; escaped for a pep talk, calling her mother with words like “utter” and “disbelief,” and quite possibly “murder!” She opened the box to find an ordinary shirt. She put on her best smile, choosing her words carefully. Then they got in the car, off to visit relatives for the holiday. My father’s eyes were bothering him, so he asked her to check the glove compartment for his saline solution. Right before her eyes was the small box she’d been waiting for, and her anger blinded her. She didn’t even see the box. Once she did, I imagine she cried. My father knew, deep down, that half the joy we experience comes when we’re completely taken by surprise. So although she was expecting it, she certainly wasn’t expecting it then. And that, my friends, is how it’s done.