Have you ever noticed how the moments in our lives that turn into the best memories are usually the moments that we don’t plan? They just seem to happen naturally – almost magically – and they exist outside of any script or scheme or objective.
I have a few that come to mind.
When I was 21, I worked at a restaurant with two of my best friends. We were all closing one night, and after all of the other servers and cooks left, we stayed, poured a pitcher of beer, and played Buck Hunter Safari (a hunting arcade game) over and over again with some of the tips we earned that night. It was completely unplanned and unscripted and was one of the most fun nights of my life.
Another time, when Chase and I lived in California, we were walking around one of the little beach towns in the area and stumbled upon this little farmers market. We didn’t have much money, but we bought some kettle corn and roamed around from booth to booth, looking at the produce and the handcrafted items and talking and holding hands in the warm California sun. We didn’t have anything specific we were looking for that day, but we found ourselves making a sweet memory in the middle of that little town.
And one time in Virginia, it snowed really hard one January night. Businesses and schools closed the following day, so Chase and a few friends and I climbed into our friend’s big, lifted truck and drove around town to check out the freshly fallen snow. We went to the beach and walked in the sand/snow mixture and squealed as the driver did donuts in parking lots. It was random and spur-of-the-moment and magic. I’ll never forget it.
On the other hand, things that we plan can sometimes fall terribly short. We have this image in our heads of how things are supposed to go, and any deviation from that throws a wrench in everything.
Like the time my family went to Hot Springs, Arkansas for a fishing tournament with my dad. I was about 13, and I was many a teensy bit boy-crazy. I envisioned a boy, about my age, going to this same tournament with his dad. I pictured us really hitting it off, swimming at the hotel pool, walking around the mall, holding hands, and whatever else 13-year-old couples do. I figured we’d fall in love, have a 10-year long-distance relationship, then get married and live happily ever after. CLEARLY this never happened, so I spent the majority of the trip that was supposed to be a fun time with family just moping around our hotel room.
Or when Chase proposed to me in Tallahassee on New Years Eve. I told him I wanted it to be a big deal. I wanted it to be in front of a crowd. I wanted applause and fanfare and “oohs” and “aahs”. I was 19-years-old and a bit attention-seeking, and it makes me cringe even typing these things. Well, it kind of fell apart last minute, as it does, and the restaurant he was going to propose to me at was closed by the time we got there. We left and drove around Tally, pulling in the McDonald’s parking lot to kiss at midnight. We then went to Doak Campbell stadium, and he proposed to me at the fountain with no other witnesses than the moonlight and our friends who went with us (who were now making out behind a tree). I cherish these memories now. I wouldn’t change a thing. But at the time, I was childish and stubborn and it was not at all how I envisioned it. To be fair, it wasn’t how Chase envisioned it either, but he did his best, dammit.
Even yesterday, we were planning to get our Christmas tree and spend the day decorating it and listening to Christmas music and burning Christmas candles. We were gonna be the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse. In my mind, it was going to be the most Norman Rockwell-esque day in the history of ever, minus the corporal punishment. Instead, I was in a bad mood that I just couldn’t shake. Everything was getting on my nerves, including my 4-year-old. I was not a good mom yesterday. I snapped at Law over and over again, telling him “no” and “stop”, and he just kept pushing buttons and testing limits until I was about to strangle myself with the Christmas lights.
Listen, the point is that the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. I realized some years back, when I was doing some introspective thinking, that I’m the most disappointed or frustrated when I had expectations that went unmet. And because I have a pretty intense imagination and am prone to fantastical daydreams, I can often create some very unrealistic expectations.
Especially around the holidays. I’ve found that I’m not the only one who struggles with this. The holidays are supposed to be magical, so we expect the magic to just happen. We expect estranged family members to come back like the prodigal son. We expect Uncle Charlie to not say racist things at the dinner table. We expect our sister or our cousin or parents to finally get sober and apologize for the years of pain. We expect our kids to be grateful and to act like angels, even if they just got home from an 11-hour road trip hopped up on straight sugar. We have all of these expectations, and more times than not, our realities don’t align with these expectations.
Even outside of the holidays, whether we realize it or not, we always have expectations of some sort. Small stuff and big stuff. We book a hotel room and we picture it to look and smell a certain way (which is to say, clean). We go to the beach and we expect sunny, carefree days. We go to work and we expect it to be a busy day, or a slow day, or a good day, or a miserable day. We get pregnant and expect to have a healthy baby. We fall in love and expect to get married. We get in the car, and expect it to take us to point B.
There is nothing wrong with expectations – it’s how our brains operate. In fact, expectation in certain capacities has been found to cause changes in brain activity and chemistry, helping to alleviate depression and produce pain relief. Predictive process, as it’s called in neuroscience, “depicts one of the most relevant concepts in cognitive neuroscience which emphasizes the importance of ‘looking into the future’, namely prediction, preparation, anticipation, prospection or expectations in various cognitive domains (Bubic, Cramon & Schubotz).
In plain English, humans are hard-wired to have expectations. We’re programmed to predict what’s coming next. What it’s going to look like, feel like, and so on. It’s essential for survival and for regulating our emotions and behaviors. There isn’t anything wrong with it. It’s necessary.
The problem arises not when we have expectations, but when we equate those expectations to our happiness. When we think, “I’ll be happy when this happens.”
I’ll be happy when this proposal happens exactly how I pictured it happening.
I’ll be happy when this vacation offers everything I’ve dreamed up.
I’ll be happy when I finally have my dream job.
Or more money.
Or a spouse.
Or a Cheesy Gordita Crunch.
The issue isn’t our expectations. The issue is when we don’t consciously provide any flexibility within those expectations to allow for joy, should things go completely ass-backwards.
Shifting our thinking even slightly to accommodate changes and newness and things outside of our control can literally change our lives. It keeps us from always looking ahead, to enjoying things just as they are, right this moment, whether they meet our expectations or not. If we’re able to accept these moments, without attaching any obligations onto them, we’re able to truly embrace them. If we’re able to sit and acknowledge, “okay, yes, this isn’t what I was expecting, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good,” we’re able to fully step into our humanity, without the obligations of perfection.
My hope for you this holiday season (and forever) is that you can let go of these fixed expectations that require perfection in order for you to be content. That you’ll find satisfaction in the absolute miracle that you are alive, on this planet, at this very time, with these very people. That you’ll revel in what it means to be human, with all of our expectations and flaws and emotions. And that it will bring you joy.