Great Expectations

There is a well-known advice book, What to Expect When You’re Expecting http://www.whattoexpect.com. It validates feelings and physical changes by reassuring the reader that these are natural consequences of being pregnant, consequences that frequently and normally occur. It doesn’t promise that these experiences will occur; it serves more as a forewarning. Expectations, even great ones, are, after all, the expression of hopes (as well as fears) and, at their most reliable, may rise to probabilities. But expectations can be as surely exceeded as disappointed. They may also morph into an unanticipated and very different reality.

Beyond pregnancy itself, parents-to-be are given to expectations. Whether these are high or low, they have been known to create an impossible burden on some children to achieve and perform throughout their lives. And from the outset, the child wordlessly expects her parents to provide security, nourishment and love. It turns out that this is more than some parents can handle. In short, expectations that go beyond the womb often have a low level of reliability. Nevertheless, even in the face of contrary experience, expectations are woefully persistent. We often fail to recognize their wishful or hypothetical character. In fact, we internalize expectations in a way that may lead to unwarranted surprise when they do not materialize.

Expectations are hazardous when not recognized for the weak reeds that they are. Stereotypes are rank with expectations. Case in point: almost 50 years ago, my law school class included an Army officer, recently returned from Viet Nam – Alan for the record. He fit all of my expectations of a military man – buzz haircut, ramrod straight posture, sharp creases in his pants and shirts, and a political viewpoint as far to the right as I was to the left. We were, in short, a goodly distance apart in our world views. On a day verging on summer, I encountered Alan on a commuter train. He was alone, reading. He looked up to greet me and turned over the book as he did so. It was a collection of 20th century poetry. I was startled, actually shocked, that the man I’d pegged as a right-wing militarist was reading poetry for sheer pleasure. The two seemed incongruous. It was an “ah ha” moment that has stayed with me all these years. People are surprising and complicated; they are not shaped by another person’s expectations.

I thought of this again last month watching a performance of Pagliacci at the Met. The heart-wrenching aria sung by the clown first alerts us to be surprised by his behavior, before the stage audience is stunned by the unexpected, and the comedy-turned-tragedy is over. We are not who we seem and even our assigned roles can’t be trusted.

Expectations nevertheless play a useful part in making choices. What we expect of a candidate will likely determine whether we vote for her. Even one who plays havoc with our expectations does, as we’ve seen, fulfill them. Likewise, in choosing a mate, we rely on the indicia of how we expect she will behave, in relation to our values. Again, this is a hope, only partially authenticated by premarital experience. However, inconsistent behavior confounds our expectations, and muddles our decisions. We need to be able to expect some things of each other – even strangers – or we would hesitate to go out the door.

Expectations provide a base line to conduct our lives. They are both useful and hazardous. When they are fulfilled, we are pleased and vindicated. But it is the exceeded expectation that is a great joy. One night last week, a young man approached me as I turned into the path to my home. He asked to use my bathroom – he was, as he explained, in extremis, and still several blocks from his home. I hesitated, mentally assessing the danger inherent in the situation, as I live alone with an amiable and skittish toy poodle. I did not know what to expect of this young man. But he was neatly dressed and coifed, well-spoken and sympathetic. So I formed an expectation of good behavior and invited him into my house to use the bathroom (though I did take the precaution of waiting outside). When he emerged, he thanked me profusely and went on his way. The next day, a pot of pink daisies appeared on my front steps with a note – “May your kindness and generosity always be returned.” I was ebullient for hours! The young man had vastly exceeded my expectations and uplifted my spirits.

My daughter works for an agency that has turned “expectations” into a verb, as in “the report is going to be late so someone should expectations the boss.” This is a significant mutation of the noun for it is more than a prediction: it suggests that the truth or certainty of the situation is already known. It is an expressive adaptation of the noun, and presumably preempts disappointment. I trust, however, though I won’t venture to predict, that this will not become a common usage. We must retain the capacity to manage our own expectations and, on occasion, to experience joy when they are exceeded.