A few days ago something strange happened. I guess it all started when Tom and Jane came to visit.
The couple, whom Jay and I have known for a few years, were our first visitors to Philly. Two days before their arrival we’d bought fresh flowers, organic groceries, new guest towels. We were, all clichés aside, excited. At one point before they arrived I even asked Jay if we should have asked them to stay longer. There was so much to show them. So much to catch up on. So much to do.
When they arrived late Thursday night, and I went to hug Jane, that feeling dissipated like smoke between my fingers. I’d never before experienced the true energy of body language until I tried to wrap by arms around her. Her body stood there stiff, uncomfortable, tense.
‘How are you guys?” I asked, trying to brush off the greeting. Maybe she was just tired. Long car ride. ‘Can I get you anything? A drink? Food?’ I was talking just to Jane for the husbands had gone off to check out Jay’s speakers and Xbox. ‘I’m fine,’ was all I got back before she went back to looking at her phone. I pretended to busy myself, keeping up my cheerful attitude, but there was a sinking feeling in the bottom of my stomach. “Was she always like this and I’d never noticed? Or did the idea of spending the weekend with me make her uncomfortable?’
I drank enough through the evening to dampen the questions, yet the pain of interacting was still there. She was cold, distracted and told us she wanted to go to bed early. The guys didn’t seem to notice which made it all the more difficult for me.
By the second day I’d gone from insecure and nervous to pissed. How could she act like this? I was nothing but nice to her. I wanted to say something to Jay but I knew he was having a great time with Tom. So I told myself it was just one more day to get through and then I could consider myself a good wife. But still, what the hell was wrong with this girl? Why was she ruining this?
The day followed suit with her complaining about the food (not enough dietary options), the heat, the noise the air conditioner made. Whenever I tried to ask her something, I got short replies, no attempt to keep the conversation going. She didn’t ask about my job, my time in Philly, my favorite current book.
When they left Sunday morning I wanted to cry. I was exhausted. Empty. When Jay told me he saw how Jane was acting and he couldn’t believe it, I broke down. ‘It was horrible,’ I said, the tears falling as we lay in bed. ‘I felt like she didn’t want to be here and I have no idea why. I feel so used and exhausted from trying to make her comfortable.’
‘I’m so sorry babe,’ he said, his kindness making the tears fall faster. ‘Just know it had nothing to do with you.’
‘I know,’ I replied. ‘But either way I feel like shit. I’m just tired from trying so hard. All I want to do is just relax and be myself now.’ Just as I was saying that I remembered that today was my cousin’s baby shower in New Jersey. The idea of having to spend another day around people, sipping champagne and trying to mingle, made me cry harder. ‘I can’t do it.’ I’m too weak.’
I called my mom. I told her I didn’t feel like going. That everyone in our family was weird around me anyway. That they wouldn’t miss me. That I didn’t feel like spending another day being fake and nice and coaxing out conversation from people. She said I didn’t have to go if I really didn’t want to, that she could say I was sick, but I could tell from her voice she would be upset. So I told Jay we had to go. That we’d make an appearance and leave early.
When we arrived I was holding my breath. Only this time I was met with warmth and love and constant conversation. Hundreds of questions. These people I thought would behave as Jane did, acted in the opposite way. The ones I had been so hard on turned out to be the softest.
On the drive back to Philly the next morning I was buzzing with that magical feeling you have when you’re pleasantly surprised. When the thing you’re dreading turns into the best night of your life. When the people you once judged become the people you can’t believe you now love so much. The pain of the previous two days was wiped away with the tingling warmth of the day I thought would be nothing but misery. It’s as if the two events had swapped outcomes.
It seems to be happening with increasing repetition. I go out with friends only to be disappointed by a comment, mood, tone. I go to my neighbors for a drink I don’t feel like having, only to have a wonderful time.
That’s what it is, I thought. Expectations. Whenever I’m expecting something to be great, it usually disappoints. And whenever I’m dreading something, I’m pleasantly surprised. But not just pleasantly surprised, overcome. It’s not just a good night, it’s a great night. So maybe the answer to happiness is somewhere in these expectations.
The obvious answer would be to just dread everything and always be pleasantly surprised. But I don’t want to spend my life dreading things. I don’t think a pessimistic attitude is the right way to pursue life. There must be something in the middle. Somewhere I can allow myself to be pleasantly surprised more and disappointed less. Maybe it’s at the zero sum place.
The space between high expectations and low are no expectations. A space where I can allow things to flow around me. Where I can go into any situation without any judgement, any ideas, any preconceived notions, and just be surprised.
The more I thought about it the more I realized it wasn’t just situations I was putting expectations on, but people. And people were the most unexpected of all. People, like situations, are unpredictable. And the sooner we start expecting less from them, the less disappointed we’ll feel when they don’t act the way we assume they should or will, and the more chances we’ll get to be surprised by them rather than annoyed, mad, disappointed.
What I’m realizing about this space is it gives me room for hope. An understanding that when I’m feeling low, like I was yesterday, that it’s an exciting space to be in. Because when were sad or stressed or feel like everything is going wrong, that’s the space we get to be surprised. When a text comes out of the blue. A nice email. A surprise encounter.
Work, this week, is going to be tough. I have a lot to do that I’m nervous about. You could say I’m dreading it. But now, when I dread, a small part of me gets excited. It could very well be difficult, but now I know when things feel bad, they can only get good. When I’m uncomfortable and scared, I’m at a point of zero. A point where I get to let the positive add itself without my interference. A point where I can be pleasantly surprised.