Expectations may be one of the biggest roots of all suffering. And yet…

Is it possible to be human and not have expectations? Can we really move through life without having some subconscious idea of where we’re going and what it might look like when we get there?

I have been thinking a lot about expectations lately. My life does not look like I expected it to when I was a kid. It doesn’t look like I expected it to when I was in college, or as a young adult, or even two years ago. My children are not doing the things I expected them to be doing, nor is my mom. Ultimately, that is both pleasant and sad. There are things going on in my life that are devastating and others that are so amazing and wonderful that I am grateful over and over again in any given week.

A big part of grief, I think, is letting go of that picture I had in my mind, realizing that life is not going to be the way I thought it was, and recognizing how much I rested in it, relied on it, planned for it and trusted it. I find it amazing how often I lend some weight and solidity to my expectations, even though they are merely schemes cooked up in my brain with no substance whatsoever. I can believe a certain thing so unquestioningly that I build entire systems on top of it and then spend overwhelming reserves of time and energy reworking those systems when the bedrock beneath them turns out to have been sand.

But in order to move forward, expectations are a requirement, aren’t they? Or am I confusing expectations with goals? Perhaps that’s it. Maybe I need to be more mindful of the difference between desire and assumption. Just because much of my life does go according to plan is not a reason to lull myself into thinking that all of it will. And it’s true that often, when things fall apart, I have some pretty amazing experiences that help me grow and become a better person, simultaneously, I’m holding expectations for other parts of my life.

Maybe it’s impossible to not assume that there will be certain givens in my life. Maybe, without those mental mirages, I wouldn’t ever bother to get out of bed. Maybe, as long as I can continue to recover from the loss of expectation, grieve for it and learn from it, it’s not a bad thing. Maybe this is just the way it’s designed to be. Our human brains crave coherence, predictability, structure. We want a story that makes sense, puzzles with all the pieces contained in the box. Most of us would choose a safe, complete scenario over one whose ending is altogether uncertain, and so we are built for expectations. And while I know the Buddhists say the trick is to not get too attached to them, that is sometimes a tall order (especially when we’ve crafted those stories in our minds so well we don’t even recognize them for what they are – stories). Maybe accepting the fact that we’re going to get attached to some of them and learning how to breathe and get curious and remain flexible when they fall apart is a more realistic plan. At least for me.

4 replies
  1. Deb Shucka
    Deb Shucka says:

    I'm with you all the way here. I appreciate your compassion for the holding of expectations, for the humanity of expectations. I think some of my biggest lessons have come from unmet expectations, as painful as they have been, and continue to be.

  2. Dee
    Dee says:

    Dear Kario, I took a deep breath while reading your posting. You say so well what I stumble in saying in the posting I did on Sunday–the first in a couple of years. Like you, I'm struggling with loss. I've discovered just how much I've tried to control the events of my life, especially with regard to writing. And I've been met with one physical ailment after another.

    I've searched for links between the two and I find myself wanting to surrender to Oneness. But I'm so attached to schedules and routines and regimes and being my own taskmaster, that I'm not sure even how to surrender. To let go and let God. I hope that whatever is behind this posting of yours will ultimately bring you a peace that seeps into your innards. Peace.

  3. Birdie
    Birdie says:

    This post made me cry. I am going through a particularly dark time right now with that Black Dog called Depression. So much of it is failed expectations. Expectations for my personal life like my relationship with my husband, other family members, and even my own personal life like my weight and my place in this world. My expectations are dashed daily when I watch the news and see so much sadness and pain.

    I expect people to go good to one another. I expect people to be selfless. I expect my husband to not be so angry with me all the time. I expect to lose weight. And yet…

    I'm going to print out this post and read it before bed.

    Thank you.


  4. Carrie Wilson Link
    Carrie Wilson Link says:

    Well said. Expectations can lead to much disappointment, frustration, and anger. I think there is too much emphasis on what we "want," and not enough on what's under those wants. What's the feeling we want to experience? What's the state of mind we want to cultivate? How do we want to be in the world?


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