Escaping the tyranny of our shoulds.
The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Rainer Maria Rilke
This post has taken a very long time to write. I have been wanting to post a reflection on expectancy for months. I just couldn’t get to a point where I was happy with it. Ironic, given the subject matter! Even as I prepare to press publish on this post, I have to remind myself to not have expectations about the outcome: if I am attached to the number of likes or comments or claps a post gets, I will probably never post anything. I need to let my words out into the world and not have expectations about a response.
I have been reflecting on expectations and how they impact our well-being. So much unhappiness, disillusionment, and even depression stems from unmet expectations. It is so easy to get fixated on our “shoulds”: what we should have achieved by now; how a marriage or relationship should be; how a new job should be; what the weather should have been like; how the Coronavirus should behave … we fixate on shoulds, instead of being with what is. And in the process, I believe we miss out on many opportunities to experience joy, even amid very tough circumstances.
It is December, and another year is nearing its end. Unlike previous years, not many people seem to be looking forward to 2022. Last year, I remember how many friends (and memes online) expressed an urgent desire for the new year to arrive. There was an expectation that 2021 couldn’t possibly be worse than 2020. Now we know better.
Expectations and expectancy
In some contexts, having expectations is appropriate. An analogy I often use when speaking and writing about complexity contrasts a zoo and a jungle or wilderness. In a zoo, we are dealing with knowns or known unknowns. We can know which animals reside in this particular zoo. I may not know the best route through the enclosures or where the penguins are, but I can expect that map or a guide will be able to tell me. Unless I am exceptionally unlucky, I can expect to see most animals on my list. I can also expect to be comfortable, with benches to sit on and places to buy snacks and drinks. I expect the animals to be healthy and safely contained. My disappointment and dissatisfaction will be justified if these expectations are not met.
While there are some knowns in a jungle or wilderness, there are also many unknown unknowns. Anyone who has visited wild nature will know that knowing what animals might occur there does not guarantee that you will see any of them. In South Africa, I have had conversations with many disgruntled visitors to the world-famous Kruger National Park. They often complain bitterly that their entire visit was an abject failure because they did not see the big five. They approached their experience with a checklist of expectations and missed out on the joy of unexpected encounters.
As we near year-end, I am aware that the future is much more jungle than zoo. We face countless unknown (and even unknowable) unknowns. Will there be another variant? Will I be able to travel in 2022 and attend a friend’s birthday party in Mallorca? Will my new business venture take off? Will we experience even more tragedy and loss? There is no way to know, so instead of entering the new year with shoulds and expectations, I am leaning into living with a sense of expectancy.
It may seem like semantics, but (for me at least) there is a big difference between having expectations and living with a sense of expectancy.
I relate expectancy to the notion of non-attachment. According to Buddhist philosophy, attachments are our fixated attempts to control our experience. It typically involves clinging to or fixating on what we perceive as desirable outcomes (or avoiding what we perceive as undesirable).
Non-attachment acknowledges that life unfolds in a way that we cannot control, no matter how hard we try. It is about letting go of attempts to control and expecting particular outcomes. Similarly, a sense of expectancy is a disposition or stance, a way of being. It holds outcomes lightly and remains open to unexpected discoveries and experiences along the way.
Non-attachment is not the elimination of desire. It is the spaciousness to allow any quality of mind, any thought or feeling, to arise without closing around it, without eliminating the pure witness of being. It is an active receptivity to life.
Expectancy or nonattachment is not being passive, apathetic, or detached. Instead, it is genuinely being present to whatever is unfolding in the now, not caught up in what should be or what could have been.
It is about enjoying the gourmet dish in front of you without pre-conceived ideas of how it should taste. It is experiencing nature with a sense of awe and anticipation, appreciating every small wonder, not fixating on the lion you may not see. It is about finding something to appreciate in the present moment, even if it doesn’t look like you expected. It is easy to ruin even so-called bucket-list experiences when we approach them with fixed expectations.
What does 2022 and beyond hold? No one can know for sure. But I will focus on the tiny wows that come across my path: my dog’s wagging tail welcoming me home, a cluster of bright orange mushrooms that sprouted seemingly out of nowhere after recent rain, an unexpected moment of connection with my husband or a friend, and unsolicited messages from someone who found comfort in my writing. Even in the darkest days, tiny fragments of joy still come to us in unexpected ways, but we must remain open and aware to spot them.