“Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.” ~ Cyril Connolly
Expectations, just as with hope, can be killers. Which is why we have to be somewhat circumspect with them. The problem is that there are at least two types of expectations: those we make, and those made about us.
Some will say that we’re not here to meet others’ expectations of us, but let’s be serious: Frankly, we set ourselves up for unmet expectations in a myriad of ways. It’s innate, for most of us, anyway, to want to please others, and it’s pathetically easy to then fail to meet expectations. Who among us hasn’t ever made a commitment knowing fully well, and at the time, that fulfilling that commitment was never going to happen? And, from the other side of that coin, who among us hasn’t been the recipient of a commitment that was never met? And just how often did we know it could never be?
Our commitments are based on knowing what we know we can do and what we’ve been told we can do. Often, the latter is based on clear evaluations of us by people who are in positions to know: Teachers, coaches, good managers, honest (circle one) spouses/partners/friends/co-workers/etc. And sometimes, parents. These are the evaluations that lead us to committing to great things; commitments which we fulfill.
As a son, I knew the pain of realizing that everything I was told by my parents wasn’t necessarily true. It was no small thing that I was reared by a mother who told me I could never fail and a father who said I would never succeed. For most of my life I believed him. Then there were the grammar and high school teachers who routinely called me promising, although their details of such promise were a bit murky in the descriptions. To this day I feel I failed some of them by not living up to their view of me, even the views I could never have shared.
As a parent, I know the pain of realizing that children, especially at certain ages, are almost preternaturally susceptible to being influenced by their parents. At various points in their upbringings, children are forced by their parents to walk a tightrope between encouragement and delusion. Ahead of them is the prospect of glory. Below them, for there is no net, is disappointment. Sometimes, worse things lie below.
And so it is with the expectations we place on ourselves. This is the time of year when many people view January 1 as a fresh start – a time to commit to great things; to start better health regimens; to continue schooling; to stop smoking; and so forth – only to be disappointed when a month, a week, even a day afterwards our commitments fade like pale ink in the hot sun. How few of us understand that every day is a fresh start. That every day offers the opportunity to make perhaps the only commitment that matters: The commitment to simply try and to accept that failure is inevitable, but not the only inevitability.
I have committed to many things since this past summer, and some have seen fulfillment. As for the rest, they will happen at their own right times, or not at all. Additionally, I have further committed to not dwelling on the whys and wherefores of the “not at alls.” And while it is true that when one door closes another one opens, we can always try to open the closed door if it leads somewhere we need and feel destined to be. True, some doors lock upon closure but that shouldn’t keep us from trying the doorknobs anyway.
Many years ago I asked a trusted college advisor what she thought I should do after graduation. I wasn’t a senior yet, and was uncertain of which pathway to follow.
“What do you want to do?” she asked. I replied that I needed to make a living.
“You need a living,” she responded. “But what you need to make is a life.”
Foolish as I was, I thought the two were intertwined. How painful the lesson when I learned they were not.
And so, I ask: What commitments do you make to yourself? Are they forged in reality or surmised from smoke? On this, the dawn of a new year – essentially an arbitrary delineation of a theoretical construct known as “time” – what self-expectations do you have and how committed are you to them? More to the point, how committed are they to you?
Happy New Year. I mean that sincerely: Happy New Year.