Expectation and Aspiration

by Dale Easley

June 2nd, 2003

I lived in Kenya for two years after I finished college. I taught math in a little boarding school. While there, I banked at the local office of a British bank. To cash a check would often take an hour. I learned to take along something to read. Occasionally, I would get my cash in only 15 minutes and could go happily on my way. In New Orleans, if it takes 15 minutes to cash a check, I find myself getting angry at the delay. In Kenya, if my check was cashed in 15 minutes I was happy. In New Orleans, I'm upset. It's 15 minutes in both places.

Obviously the situation one is in doesn't determine the upset. There are numerous stories of people being happy in miserable conditions: Mother Theresa picking maggots from a dying man's flesh; Corrie Ten Boom and her sister in a concentration camp; many of the people I've met in Haiti. And many Americans who seemingly have everything--plenty of food, a place to live, a car, etc-are miserable. Compare suicide rates among Haitians and Americans and tell me that you can blame conditions for making you miserable.

No, I think it is our expectations that cause most of our misery. We expect that things should be different than they are. My girlfriend should be prettier. I deserve a nicer car. My boss doesn't respect me as much as I deserve. I deserve a pay raise. (And advertising likes to create these expectations and then convince us that buying the product will relieve our misery.) If we focus on the difference between our expectations and reality, we can make ourselves miserable under nearly any conditions. I know, because I've done it. I've spent time in some of the nicest spots in the world and some of the worst, and the location didn't matter.

I think that one of the toughest jobs I have as a parent is helping my children have aspirations without burdening them with my expectations. I might want Ananda to bring home all A's, but will I treat her as a failure if she makes a B? Perhaps the biggest difference is that expectations look backwards while aspirations look forwards. Expectations say that the present reality should be different than it is. Aspirations are our plans and dreams about how we would like the future to be. In war, the battle plan never survives the first battle. We still aspire to win the war. If we can learn hold to our aspirations while altering our expectations, then changes are less likely to upset us.

While I was in Kenya, I heard an old missionary say, "Live as if you'll die tomorrow. Plan as if you'll live forever." I think the missionary's statement is saying the same thing as the theme of this essay: focus on your aspirations, not your expectations. One of the ways to be sure as to which you are focussing upon is to look at your emotional state. Are you on an even keel, or are you getting upset at others for not doing what you want? Are you full of resentment? We can always find ways in which our expectations are not met. Instead, let go of your expectations and start focussing on your aspirations.