December 1, 2013
A word about expectations. Expectation is often the enemy of joy. For instance, I once loved a woman, as I have been known to do on occasion throughout the years. These ventures have usually been at my peril, but I like to come back for more. The love of any woman, to be honest, has never been a curse. Expectation has been the curse. Expectation dries up rivers of joy.
Once I loved a woman, as I was saying, and for good reason. She was and is a very compelling creature: smart, beautiful, thoughtful: all of the things we say about women who gain our affections.
I had asked her out on a date and it didn’t go as I had hoped. I summoned all of my courage one early autumn afternoon and about two weeks later I got a response in the negative. Wisdom generally states you are to move on from here and maybe set your eyes somewhere down stream. I was not wise. I’m still not wise.
I locked eyes on her, wanting to win her over, believing that I could. We were still friends, and we enjoyed each other’s company and I thought there was hope in all of this. I was not wise at all.
So her birthday was coming up. There was a certain movie we had seen together that she loved, and I considered myself a very romantic man having read a few poems. The movie has a whole dialogue with a very affable Tom Hanks and an always charming Meg Ryan going on about fall and school supplies and freshly sharpened pencils. Mr. Hanks promised Ms. Ryan that he would buy her a bouquet of these freshly sharpened pencils. The entire scene, if you are a sucker for romantic whimsy, is just charged with sugary charisma.
I thought I would get up early and deliver such a bouquet on her front doorstep- a whole coffee mug full of colored pencils that I had spent the night before sharpening one-by-one. I believe I had a card for her and also, a book by a poet that was well loved several centuries ago and is still often quoted on the internet. It really seemed like a formula for victory.
This deed did not lead to any success with this young woman, but I did not give up. I began to build in my heart a sense of expectation. This was an evolving belief that I could somehow win her over because, well, I had made up mind, and eventually she would realize that I knew what was best.
I could go on and on about all the ways I tried to make my expectations pay a solid dividend, but that’s not really the point. Nor is the point to make myself look like a martyr, so many years later. The point, as you may now be wondering, is also not about me telling you what an absolute fool I have been. However, I don’t believe we can share much of ourselves for very long if we intend on saving face, or only telling of the successes, or only telling of the moments where we failed but it was really a triumph. It’s all so self-serving, and in the end I believe we are right to stop listening.
This was not a success. It was not a triumph. My expectations, in the end, robbed me of the joy of such a great friend for a long time.
The title of this essay is called “Playground”, a word suggested as a launch pad of sorts for whatever comes out for 500 or 1000 words or so.
I have noticed over the past year and a half since I moved back to America that our culture, and that of the entire West, is obsessed with the concept of Happiness. There are so many books, articles, internet lists of the Top 30 Ways to Be Happy When You’re 30, and on and on and on. Coca-Cola, bless them, now has the tagline, “Open Happiness”. This doesn’t need further commentary, does it? We are obsessed.
If I could live my life over again, I wouldn’t get wrecked by own expectations. I write for the sake of writing because writing is creating something, and this is what we are meant to do as humans: create. We are to create in all kinds of ways: art, boats, children, homes, medicine, Pinterest boards that make other oooh and ahhh. We are designed for creating. I think that’s why we love to read or to watch great films: because even then, as we soak in the narratives, our brains are firing new ideas and bridging novel connections, connections that go into a vast pool of our minds from where we are able to draw, miraculously, even newer ideas, thoughts, and bouquets of sharpened pencils. This is the stuff of joy.
Playground: when we are caught up in the act of creating, in whatever way that it is, we are at play. We say it is work, because we exert something of ourselves, but work does not exist aside from play. Work is at it’s best when the freedom of play is the dominate ingredient.
I wish I had enjoyed those days a little more. I wish I could have given that silly gift to that woman I loved without expectation. It could have been pure play, pure joy, to create a little something and give it away to someone I cared about. My expectations sunk the joy in the end.
I suppose what is so nice is that there’s another sun coming up tomorrow in which I’ll probably get to try again at all of those things. I’ll go out on the playground and try again, the bell will ring, and we’ll go back at it again the next day. We get better. This is how we play.
*Thanks to my dear Jane McAfee for the suggestion.
For Advent 2013 the idea is to write 25 essays- one for each day, using a single word as the launching point. These are not edited or polished, save for a brief proofread before publishing. Neither going for style nor grace, just fun and thought and the joy of whatever might come out. Many thanks to all of the good people who submitted suggestions.