charles dickens' christmas, maggie mcreynolds blog

Great Expectations

I was 12 when I first read Dickens’s serialized novel about Pip and his “great expectations” (translation: whopping big inheritance, morphing from lowly orphan to influential man about town, marrying the elusive Estella), but even I knew life was gonna throw Pip a few curve balls—if only because if it didn’t, it was going to be one big snore of book.

Still, that didn’t stop me from spending the next couple of decades having great expectations of my own. Some of them were big—famous actress! editor of The New Yorker! Others were more modest—that cute boy in English lit would ask me to the prom! there’d be six inches of snow by Christmas!

All of them required a lot of rules about what things had to look like in order to be “perfect.” A good number of them hinged upon my having mysteriously acquired direct control over the behavior of someone else.

Here’s the thing. Holding yourself, others, and every experience that comes down the pike hostage to high expectation is an almost guaranteed ticket to Bummerville. Because, not surprisingly, few actual experiences are an identical match for the imaginary ones in our heads. I did become an actress—doing voiceovers from my home studio instead of strutting the Broadway stage. I became an editor—but of a small-city monthly, not the apple of the Big Apple’s eye.

Nobody asked me to the prom. Christmas day dawned dry and clear.

And all of those things were good. All of those things were fine—even right. But I told myself they were disappointments, because things hadn’t gone exactly as I had wanted them to go. I wondered if I had set my sights too high.

A few years of this—boyfriends not making as much of a fuss over my birthdays as I wanted them to, jobs that weren’t as fabulous as I thought they would be, injuries and illnesses foiling the best-laid plans, and I decided that I was going about things the wrong way. Maybe the trick was to have low expectations. If I fully expected things to never work out, then if anything actually did, I would be pleasantly surprised.

I thought this would spare me disappointment. Instead, all it got me was what a friend calls “disappointment on the installment plan.” Instead of being disappointed in a big way when reality didn’t meet my high expectations, my low expectations were sort of like being pre-disappointed, 24/7: I now experienced a small, depressing, soul-deadening degree of disappointment every single day.

These days, I am playing with the idea of having no expectations. This doesn’t mean having no goals, making no plans, or taking no action. No expectation, for me, is about accepting responsibility for myself and my own choices—and conceding that I have no control over friends, family, and certainly the weather.

It means setting my sights on something—even something big—and taking small steps toward making my goals while at the same time staying present in the moment and being open to things unfolding as they will. It means not fighting with reality. As the inimitable Byron Katie says, “when you argue with reality, you lose…but only 100% of the time.”

When I stop setting reality against preconceived expectation, I am able to see it for what it is, and find the gifts in it. I love the fact that I can be an actress in my pajamas with bedhead. As the parent of a young boy who can ride his bike less than half a mile to school, I’m glad I don’t live in New York. I didn’t get asked to the prom, so I invited a guy I had a huge crush on—and he said yes. Because Christmas day was dry and clear, I got to try out my new roller blades that very day, instead of waiting for spring thaw.

These days, I still hold the reins of my life. But I hold them very gently. Because sometimes, the horses have strong ideas about where they want to go. And when I give them their heads, they show me sights I would never otherwise have seen.

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