Expectations are tricky devils. We all have them. Sometimes they are called goals, or rules, or values, or job descriptions, but anytime they can fit into the sentence “I expect you to_____,” they are expectations. They can bring security and happiness or heartache and depression.
Expectations helps us work together as a community. When we approach a traffic intersection, we have expectations about who will stop and who will go, according to the color of the lights or the signs posted — unless your in certain parts of Asia or Odessa, Texas where it’s every man for himself!
A couple entering into a marriage, for example, usually have the mutual expectation of fidelity, each to the other. But if that expectation changes or is ignored, trust is broken and there may be divorce.
The most difficult expectations can be the ones we have for ourselves and for our children. Most parents expect their children to do their best in school, get decent jobs, become productive members of society. Sounds good doesn’t it? But let’s say that beautiful little baby was born with Down Syndrome. If the parents, grandparents, siblings, etc., aren’t willing to change their expectations to fit that child, there will be strife. Many a family has broken up over such things. And if the expectations for that child are too low, she will be unhappy, needy and imprisoned by what could have been.
One doesn’t have to be disabled to experience expectations that bind and constrain us. A child from a broken home with an addicted mother may be put in a “don’t expect much from him” box by his teachers before he even gets a chance to try. Or a daughter may be expected to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a doctor, when she really wants to be a sculptor. These expectations can become insidious when we begin to accept and believe them for ourselves. Good or bad, they can become self-fulfilling prophecies eating at our souls with regret, unhappiness and depression, and we typically don’t know why we feel that way.
The problem with expectations is they tend to leave out the probability of change. Each of us learns and grows and changes as we experience the world around us.
When I went to Europe and Israel in the late 1970s, I changed profoundly. Visiting then-communist Eastern Europe and the holocaust camp Auschwitz, traveling through Israel on a study tour, and living in Amsterdam for nearly a year gave me a different perspective on the world and my own part in it. But when I returned home, my family and friends expected me to have the same likes and dislikes for everything from food to entertainment to life goals as I had before I left. In turn, their concerns and priorities seemed more mundane and less considered to me. They expected me to be the same as when I left; I expected them to have changed as I did.
Expectations can really bog the spirit down when the totally uncontrollable happens. Addiction, cancer, other illnesses and death, can all throw a monkey wrench in the works. A job loss, theft, hurricanes, fires, and other natural disasters can leave us mad at our loved ones, ourselves, the universe and God. [Personally, I think there’s a special hell for those who teach their followers to expect God to be their financial sugar daddy and that nothing bad happens if you have faith.]
It doesn’t take much for me to remember back four decades to how I felt when my fiance broke up with me. In my early twenties, my expectations of what my future would be like were shattered. I was mad at him. I was mad at myself (how could I not see this coming?) and I was mad at God for letting me get hurt.
My expectations were pretty normal: get married, have a family — the usual. It took many, many years to realize that those were society’s expectations. And the path of doing mission work wasn’t really mine, either. I more or less slid into it with nudges and pushes from my mom, friends and teachers. Even when I narrowed it to Bible Translation, using my language and analytical skills to let God’s Word speak for itself, something didn’t fit. They were all others’ expectations for me. I hadn’t a clue at that point what I really wanted to do, what my calling was.
Slowly, I’ve learned to let go of many of the expectations that have imprisoned me, whether of my own or another’s making. I try hard to stick to the basics: my relationships with my husband, with myself and with God.
My husband and I constantly talk about our expectations without calling it that. Who does what around the house and yard, what financial responsibilities we do or don’t want to take on, and our intimacy on all levels. I constantly struggle with what I expect of myself. I still tend to set unrealistic goals and have to bring them down to achievable bites. And I’ve come a long way in letting God out of the box. I expect him to love me because he says he does. As for how that love is shown, I’ve learned to expect surprises. His ideas aren’t at all what I would expect, sometimes not even ‘love like’ at first, especially if it involves a lesson learned. But in the end they turn out wonderfully different than I would have imagined.
What about you? Are you holding someone back by expectations that don’t fit them? Or perhaps you’re holding tattered expectations in your hand and need to let go. Maybe you’re the one being held hostage to your own or someone else’s ideas of what or who you should be.
Learning who you are and living in that knowledge is what growing up is really about. Expectations are certainly a valuable part of that, but they, too, need to change as you grow. Sure, it’s a process that’s never over. That’s OK. The the treasure is in the journey, not the destination.