The other day, while driving carpool, I took a wrong turn. Annoyed with myself for having made a mistake, I sighed. This prompted one of the children behind me to ask what was wrong. Exasperated, I replied to her, “I made a wrong turn.” She quickly responded, “There’s no such thing as a wrong turn.” My amazement at her ability to see the situation in such a positive light quickly turned into bewilderment when she added, “Because the world is round.” Now, even if there were no oceans or dead ends along the way, I don’t think she was suggesting that I travel across town via Australia. Rather, it was more of an observation that you can always find another way to go, even if you choose the road less traveled. I started pondering this thought and realized that the only reason I got annoyed at myself to begin with was that I had created an expectation of which route I would take and then unwittingly took a different one. This made me realize that maybe I am “expectationally challenged.”
What are expectations, anyway? They are those nebulous concepts floating around in our heads that often lead to unhappiness. We are not born with expectations. Rather they are established while we’re too young or distracted to even notice. Expectations vary, based on where we are and whom we are with. Each individual acts on the basis of expectations without communicating to others what they are, and modifies his or her expectations without realizing it. It is often hard to even identify an expectation until it hasn’t been met, which leaves one with a limited ability to combat it. Yet we find ourselves face to face with expectations in almost every aspect of life. We impose them on others, hold our children to them, and make judgments based on them. Let’s talk about expectations, big and small.
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We have an expectation that we should be able to make a phone call. I don’t mean whenever we want; I mean the actual process is something anyone over the age of eight should be reasonably adept at. Unfortunately, in this ever-changing technological world, it feels as though, every time you get a phone upgrade, it’s as if you’ve entered a new universe. The first thing you have to learn is the language. Try buying a phone. You can’t. You can, however, buy a “device.” In fact, when I told the salesperson I wanted a phone, she asked me the mind-boggling question, “What do you want to use it for?” I really didn’t get the question. I kind of thought the word “phone” gave it away. So I answered slowly, “for talking” and she said, “Is that all you will be using your device for?” Now I was stumped, but, I figured she had simply misheard me. So I repeated, with a little extra emphasis, “I want a phone,” and she said a little more slowly, “and what would you like to use it for?” I gave up. I told her, I know we are both speaking English, but I have no idea what you are talking about. With a little patience on her part and an expectation adjustment on my part, we finally decided I should get a device that I would use for talking. I eventually walked out of the store with a little skip in my step, feeling like an enlightened consumer. Of course, the minute I got to my car I realized I had no idea how to make a call. I took a deep breath, turned around, walked back into the store, and said to the salespeople behind the counter, “Can one of you show me how to make a phone call?”
It turns out that making a phone call on a touch-screen device is possible but by no means easy. First of all, what’s with the screen disappearing? How are you supposed to press a button, (that’s not really a button), especially when it’s not even there. When you finally realize you have to look for a button to press (that is really a button) in order to turn your screen back on, your screen turns sideways. Now, as you turn sideways so you can see the screen, you inadvertently turn the phone, prompting it to return to its original upright position. All of this ultimately results in you getting whiplash while some confused person on other end of the line is saying, “Hello? Hello...is anyone there?”
Of course, you eventually master the art of making a call, but you realize that unless you can actually find the button that puts you on “speaker” (again, this isn’t a real button), you can’t multitask. You see, if you try to cradle the phone between your neck and shoulder (after you get the neck brace off), you might inadvertently touch your screen with your face and do something creative, like take a picture of your chin. Then in your efforts to get yourself out of camera mode, you might end up taking a few “selfies” of yourself that closely resemble a deer in headlights.
This, of course, is not to take away from the skill necessary to navigate a call that comes in when you are already on a call with someone else. A common outcome to this natural disaster is that you accidentally tell your whole life story to the wrong person. At this point, you might as well send them that picture of your chin and call it a day. Let’s move on.
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Whether we like to admit it or not, parents have dress-code expectations, even for children as young as three years old. This is an example of where expectations meet reality full force. Parents have a strong sense of what society dictates, but it’s often not as strong as what a child dictates. For example, my friend bought her three-year-old son a beautiful new Shabbos vest. Normally, this wouldn’t even bear mentioning, however, it caused quite a dilemma for her son. You see, her son was very partial to the pocket on the left side of his Shabbos shirt. But the vest, which he also liked, covered up the pocket. The problem was “solved” by her son, who put his vest on under his shirt – you probably already guessed that it wasn’t her idea – and insisted on wearing it that way. Hmmm. While walking to shul, she got amused but understanding looks from the mommies who remembered when their little ones had also turned against the fabric of society.
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Expectations also spill right into our homes, literally. You know, spilled milk, batter dripping onto the floor, cereal bowls knocked upside down, grape juice winding across the table making little tributaries along the way. You name it, it’s been spilled. Despite the preponderance of spills in our lives, we never seem to expect them. We always react as if it’s the first we’ve heard of them. We jump up from the table, batten down the hatches, and call for back up. Towels fly out of the kitchen, napkins sail across the table, and tempers start to flare. It’s a wonder no one is yelling “milk overboard.”
In many households, the degree of the reaction associated with a spill is directly correlated with the spiller’s position, or lack thereof, in the family tree. After all, when was the last time you yelled at your grandmother or your Shabbos guest? Now, I’m not advocating that you should start, I’m merely pointing out that sometimes our expectations are, shall we say, a wee bit unreasonable. In order to address this, try reframing your dining room into a supermarket. When the cereal box gets flipped over, and you hear the pitter-patter of cereal rolling across the floor, someone could yell, “Dry clean-up, aisle one.” This “expectation adjustment” goes along way for everyone, including the cereal.
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One last set of expectations that has no basis in reality is the length of time we think we can keep handprints, smudges, crayon, and the like off our walls and furniture. Handprints, smudges, and crayon are all familiar terms, but let me explain what I mean by “the like.” In one case, “the like” was a carving that was done on an antique dresser – not the original carving, mind you, but one that was added as a “labor of love.”
One day, many years ago, I walked into a secondhand store and saw a beautiful dresser. I asked the owner about it, but she said it wasn’t for sale. When I asked why not, she brought my attention to the section where her daughter had displayed her “handiwork.” Gouged into the rich cherry wood was a child-like scrawl across the side of the dresser. (Take a deep breath, it’s going to be okay.) Although my initial reaction was to ask her if she had given the child up for adoption, I saw, upon a closer inspection, that the carving said, “I love Mommy” followed up by a shaky string of “x-o-x-o-x-o.”
The owner explained that when she asked her daughter why she did that, her daughter responded that she had really wanted to write it on a piece of paper and tape it on, but she was afraid the tape would make the dresser sticky and upset her mother. Talk about a need for an expectation adjustment. Now her mother keeps the dresser in the store to remind herself that antiques are valuable, but children are precious.
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Now, I’m not saying expectations have no place in our lives. It’s just that expectations come with a price that isn’t always worth swallowing, literally. As one mother shared with me, when her first child swallowed a penny, she was ready to call 911. By the time her youngest swallowed a dime (notice the inflation), she just looked down and told him, “It’s coming out of your allowance.” You see, expectations shouldn’t be hard and fast rules. They should be adjustable so we don’t place more value on the item than we do on the person. We certainly don’t want to set ourselves and our loved ones up for failure, especially since success is just around the corner. After all, the world is round.