I remember when I was in grade twelve, one of my mother’s friends telling me that one of the keys to having a long and happy life was to learn to lower one’s expectations. I remember this woman as someone positive and vibrant, and with a perpetual mischievous twinkle in her eye. My recall may be a bit faulty, but I don’t think she meant this statement in a cynical or ironic way, and certainly not as a justification for apathy.
At the time, though, with all of the superiority of youth, I was less than impressed with this idea. In fact, I was appalled at the notion of lowering one’s standards as an acceptable way of approaching life. Being an idealist, I did think much of compromise as a philosophy.
Looking back from my present point of life, though, I see things a bit differently. It’s amazing what a few decades of pratfalls, disappointments, turnabouts and unexpected diversions from the beaten path will do. I like to think that they have all contributed to a greater sense of wisdom and compassion for my own human foibles, and those of others.
At this point in my life, I can see the damage that rigid, uncompromising standards can do to oneself and the others in one’s life. For instance, having unrealistic expectations of friends, family and our life partner can lead to bitterness, anger, and estrangement. We are, all of us, human beings, with very human weaknesses. It is wise to accept the flaws of others, to acknowledge them, understand, them, and then move on to consider those positive aspects of the person that drew you to them in the first place.
Having unrealistic expectations of society can lead to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. A dear friend of mine teaches high school math and biology. One of the main emphases in her classes is the idea of environment stewardship — that it is the responsibility of all of us to do our part to protect the fragile world in which we live. With her children, she makes a special effort to avoid dwelling too long on the ecological problems that are confronting us. It is too easy, she warns, to become passionate and eloquent about the horrors that we as a species are inflicting on the planet. It is vital to talk also about what each of us can do to effect change. This is not to say that we can or should ignore the darker aspects of life, or the larger picture, but we must always recognize that we have the power to control our own lives, and to commit ourselves to positive change.
One of the worst side effects of unrealistic expectations is the damage that it causes us. Every day we are confronted with images of perfection. When we turn on the television we are confronted with the Martha Stewarts and celebrity chefs of the world who make it seem as though there is no point in attempting to cook a dinner or refinish a dresser unless we can do it in world-class fashion. The truth is, nobody learns anything except by trial and error, and it’s at the learning stage where all the fun is to be had. We read beauty magazines, and come to believe that we are inadequate. We are too fat, or too thin. We have imperfect skin or discoloured teeth. The truth is, no matter what others may try to tell us or sell us, we are all beautiful and unique.
Am I perfect? Not a chance. Are you? No way. Is the world messed up in a lot of ways? Of course. So what? Perfection is not an aspect of the real world. We are all fumbling and stumbling along, hoping for the best and trying to do our best. And for my money, that’s what makes us so interesting.