Unless you have been living the life of a hermit, people have disappointed you. It’s one of the biggest challenges of relationships. Even those we love don’t consistently live up to our expectations on a fairly consistent basis. Whether it is how we hoped that they would make us feel, or how they would respond to a particular need or desire, or just how they simply seemed to take a different perspective than we do, relationships are fraught with disappointing results.
Recently, though, as I have thought more about this in my professional and personal life, I have come to a crossroads in considering that maybe some of the disappointment lies in the fact that we simply are expecting too much from each other. To be clear, I am not advocating that we lower basic standards long regarded as critical from a secular and/or faith standpoint. If people lie, steal, cheat, or treat others in any way that violates basic civility and decency, we should hold others accountable in whatever manner is most demanded.
But what I am talking about here is that we as human beings have a fatal flaw when it comes to just how much we believe others should help and unite with us, whether it be physically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. Although this varies for each person based on their temperament and experiences, many of us struggle with bitterness and disappointment when others just don’t seem to get (or respond to) what we feel we need. There are an infinite number of reasons that this might be the case. But deep within our heartache lays a question we must all consider. That is, are we simply expecting too much of each other?
As the father of seven kids, it is interesting (and at times, uncomfortable) to watch my kid’s psychological development unfold. When it comes to our youngest, who is just under two years of age, his expectations for others seem to be rather straightforward. Simply put, if you meet his basic desires for food, positive attention, and a clean butt, he is generally happy. But as our kids go up the age ladder, it is clear that their expectations for others increase both in amount and subtlety. By the time you get to our oldest (12 year-old twins), they are already displaying a complex blend of expectations that are not easily teased out, even by their child psychologist dad and amazing, intuitive mother. Yet tied directly into all of this complexity is a sense that each child’s ego, especially as it relates to how his or her needs will be met, is strongly guiding how their expectations will develop for others as adults.
The challenge remains that when you learn to rely on others so much at home, work, social circles, and otherwise, even seemingly minor matters can lead to monumental disgust. And although each of us could certainly be more in tune, more caring, and more considerate, I really believe that we have simply evolved as human beings to rely too much on others to meet our own needs, especially that of a psychological kind. And the problem is, not only are most of us not mind readers, but all of us are infallible and imperfect in all sorts of ways, even before we approach that which could be defined as obvious sin.
If this all sounds like a depressing treatise (and I have disappointed your expectations for this article), I offer my apologies. But with every somber realization comes a potentially much richer reality. The positive here is that even though human beings were created to be infinitely unpredictable and complex, the world around us, although not on a foolproof schedule, is often predictable and reliable.
Take for instance that no longer is it anything but mundane that human beings know the exact moment that the sun will set and will rise. We know just what the moon will do, and where the stars will be. When the seasons will give way and when the tides will ebb and flow. When the bears will emerge from hibernation and when the sparrows will arrive for spring. At what temperature the water will freeze, and what temperature it will evaporate into the air. And this is just a foretaste of the vast array of knowledge we have been able to understand. Although quantum physics teaches us that our cosmos will always retain a degree of uncertainty, much of our physical world is quite explainable and understandable in a particularly amazing way.
The beauty of this is that the more we get to know our world and universe, the more interesting and rewarding it becomes no matter what is happening in our personal lives. The other day, my son Noah and I were walking home from church in light snow ahead of the others who had taken the van (bus). It was a simple walk full of great conversation about winds, precipitation, and many other things related to the weather conditions. I joked that one day he might become a meteorologist as he conveyed to me all the subtle and beautiful ways in which weather (including the little sleet pellets accumulating on his hand) had aroused his curiosity. In the end, it was a joyful experience without expectations because each of us was able to share ways in which the natural world had “brought us in” even when we were alone. Yet, so often, we regard the natural world around us as either a fleeting fancy or an annoyance to overcome (especially in winter). When we do this, we miss a superabundance of interest, intrigue, and predictability that could otherwise frame and comfort our unpredictable relationships, and lives in general.
By lowering our expectations of others, it not only reduces chances for discontentment and frustration, it also opens a corridor to consider what our seemingly mundane world has to offer. In saying this, you may feel I am suggesting we settle into a somewhat parallel, arranged existence where we resign ourselves to be in less than full communion with others. On the contrary, what I am suggesting is that if we lower our internal expectations of another, we may become aware of previously unknown joys that are always available no matter what is happening in our personal or public relationships or affiliations . But even more, we may find that when we stop expecting that others will unite in ways to meet our every need and want, we may find that slowly, a relationship returns to a place of greater mutuality, understanding, and reason, where we are more grateful than ever for what individuals do provide so that we feel more safe, loved, and understood.
Over three quarters of a century ago, Dr. Viktor Frankl and millions of others learned that humanity can fail our expectations in a most atrocious way. In the horrors of the Holocaust, he and others were forced to consider that fellow human beings would slaughter others in the millions for reasons that only fear and hate can understand. Yet, in light of the worst suffering people have ever known, he penned a maxim that convicts me to this day. It reads simply as follows:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
We as fellow human beings, whether spouses, parents, children, friends, coworkers, and even public figures, are never going to stop disappointing each other. If we do so in a way that violates basic human rights and decency, then let it be that appropriate consequences ensue. But as we all fail to live up to expectations that each of us have for another, let us consider that sometimes we might be expecting too much, and if so, it is time to let go and focus on what we should do. What may seem like a loss of control or even our dreams may turn out to be the beginning of new hope that something even better is on the horizon.