A dear friend of mine recently posted a meme of a silhouetted tree rising into an evening sky. In the foreground is a sea of colorful lights, while floating above the tree in the night sky are these words:
“The best way to avoid disappointment is not to expect anything from anyone.”
(Deep sigh.) While these words may well hold truth, they have never resonated positively in my system and now I feel a need to explore the discomfort. Here's what I've learned about the source of the quote. (No. It's not from the Bible.) In the 18th Century, there lived a poet named Alexander Pope who famously wrote this line in a letter to his friend John Gay:
“I have many years magnify’d in my own mind, and repeated to you a ninth Beatitude, added to the eight in the Scripture: Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
Words from someone who's clearly been disappointed, right? I should mention that Alexander Pope was also a satirist. I learned that much of his work was inspired by human weakness and vices and failings. With this in mind, and his choice to frame this thought as a Beatitude, I can imagine the sarcasm washing over his words as they were first constructed in his mind then spoken aloud. Without the benefit of the actual context of Pope’s words, interpretation is wide open. I maintain that the words arose by way of disappointment. In other words, he expected something from someone and was disappointed. Hence, the tongue-in-cheek, scorn-filled message to never expect anything from anyone ever. Try saying it outloud a little saucy and scorned. Think 18th century war-torn, dirty, overcrowded Britain, likely rife with disappointment! "Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed!”
There is absolutely nothing sacred or serious about this statement when put into that context, and it doesn't quite have the quality of hopefulness found in the Biblical Beatitudes. Quite the opposite! Clearly Pope had just been disappointed and was able to express his disdain in the inverse form of the original eight. Think about it. We all use sarcasm sometimes. It's a great anecdote to the sting of disappointment. If Alexander Pope could have time traveled and had written the Beatitudes they may have sounded something like this:
“Blessed are the pushy for they will never inherit the Earth.”
“ Blessed are the dark in heart, for they will never see God.”
"Blessed are the sad, for they will never be joyful."
Pretty negative, right? Written like the Biblical Beatitudes, the "Expectation Beatitude" might read, “Blessed are they who have high expectations, for they shall find all that they seek in life.” See what I’m saying there?
On the subject of expectations, here are some further thoughts: Why would one not have expectations? There may be a good answer, but I cannot think of one. Except this: Many people simply do not have the skills to consciously set and maintain expectations that reflect their values. If you're someone who does set boundaries and expectations, imagine for a moment what your world would be like without them. To do this, consider common expectations we have everyday. In relationships we expect honesty; in the workplace we expect to be paid for the job we do; when driving, we expect other drivers to follow the rules of the road; and even when we're speaking, we expect to be heard. People who do have expectations will likely have more satisfying relationships, be more successful in their careers and carry the air of confidence of someone who will be heard. None of this is to say that disappointment won’t show up in some area of your life--everyone experiences disappointment--but when we frame our desires with expectations, we minimize the risk and optimize a positive outcome. Those without expectations around these and other life experiences probably won't often be disappointed, but they probably won't have a very interesting life either.
In relationships, when we consciously expect a certain quality or outcome, we attract the quality or outcome that matches our own energetic expression. But what about those people we’ve attracted who seemed perfect for us and then become the very opposite of the partner we desire. How does that happen? I suppose there could be a lot said here about red flags and the denial of same--after all, we don't want to believe we can make such errors in judgement. So why do we attract the one who we think is right for us who at some point becomes the evil Mr. Hyde to kind-hearted Dr. Jekyll. Very generally put, in these instances, there are most likely lessons left for us to learn and we have been given an opportunity to find clarity and discernment that will make us better judges of character. It give us a chance to see ourselves reflected in someone else, especially those qualities we haven’t fully developed. I find it true that what I lack in myself, I see clearly in others. Another person can be the mirror to our own lack of growth or maturity or insight and, should we choose to look into it, from it, direction, correction and self compassion can evolve.
And so what of Jesus and His Beatitudes? The eight attributes--poor in spirit, mournful, meek, passionate, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, and martyrdom--lead us to the dangling rewards mentioned at the end of each message. I appreciate the perspective that the Beatitudes refer to people who innately inhabit these selfless qualities, but what of those of us who are lacking? We must have expectations of ourselves, otherwise, what guides us to develop any of these qualities? According to the teachings of Jesus, if I want to inherit the earth, I have to move my ego aside to become meek. Likewise, if want mercy, I must strive to be forgiving. The good qualities then must first become a mission and ultimately an accomplishment that requires growth and change and having expectations of ourselves should we desire the glorious rewards.
So, I say go forth and have expectations and have disappointments! Learn, live, grow, gain insight and perspective from all you do. Know that the silver lining of all disappointment is that it brings with it the realization of what we don’t want. It narrows the focus on what we do want and gives us discernment and direction. Sometimes disappointment comes from our own actions, giving us an opportunity to gain valuable insight and self compassion.
Finally, shouldn't we resist passing on these familiar, outdated, misunderstood adages to our children? And instead of instilling them with beliefs like "never expect anything from anyone," empower them to know that life can be full of goodness and wonder and that having conscious expectations of ourselves and others--and the occasional disappointment-- just may be the secret! (Cue the sea of colorful lights.)
Patti Iwer works as an occupational therapist in Johns Island, South Carolina, and holds additional certifications in somatic therapy, LSVT and Reiki. She is the owner of Wellness Rising Integrative Healthcare and co-owner of Island Pediatric Therapy. Patti specializes in dementia care, pain management, rehabilitation and normal development throughout the lifespan.