What to Expect When Your Expectations are Excessive

It was a memorable, almost magical, moment.  I was standing on the top observation deck of the Eiffel Tower, attempting to position myself in a slightly northwestern direction so as to be looking – in my mind, at least – across the horizon, across the Atlantic Ocean, straight into Westchester County, New York, where my wife was at home while I was on a brief business trip to Paris.

It was the summer of 1992.  It had been two and a half years since we had married, and  it would be another two and a half years until the birth of our twins, a son and a daughter.

In that memorable, almost magical, moment, with the majestic beauty of the city of Paris below me, I stared out across the sky.  Two separate yet connected images formed in my mind – one of my wife as I imagined she might be at that precise moment, halfway across the globe in New York; the other of the two of us as I imagined we might be at some indeterminate future moment, together in this perfect space atop the Eiffel Tower.

At that precise, memorable moment twenty years ago, I promised myself that someday, we would indeed stand there together.

Little did I know then that two decades would pass before the opportunity to fulfill that promise would finally present itself.  And even less did I understand then what two decades of expectations would set me up for when that opportunity did finally arise.

No doubt you can easily picture for yourself the overblown, overly romantic image I had built up in my mind over the years, and carried with me on our flight across the Atlantic a few weeks ago, en route for our long-planned, and often-postponed, family vacation in Paris.  In my picture-perfect fantasy, as soon as we had checked in to our hotel, the four of us would head straight for the Eiffel Tower, ride the lift to the top deck, and stand together as I had stood alone twenty years before, putting a perfect closure to the nostalgic memory-image I had held in my mind for so long.

No doubt you can easily surmise how unlikely it ever was that this picture-perfect moment would actually take place.  And of course, you would be perfectly correct in your surmise.

Suffice it to say that a combination of consistently bad weather, a two-day bout of jet lag on my part, unusually large holiday weekend crowds, technical problems that  had two of the three tower lifts out of service, and finally – on the last day of our vacation, and our last chance to make it up to the top observation deck – an unexplained security issue that resulted in a temporary closing of the lift, all conspired to keep us from realizing that long-cherished fantasy of mine, despite our having made three separate trips to the Eiffel Tower during our four-day stay in Paris.

In the days since we returned home, I’ve thought often about the many and varied obstacles we faced on each of our visits to the tower.  Once or twice, I’ve even entertained the ludicrous thought that some unknown power must have set itself in opposition to us.

But then, of course, I realize that I’m looking at the situation completely inside-out.  It’s not about some supposed external force opposing us, it’s about the actual internal force propelling me – the powerful, relentless force of expectation.  Twenty years is a long time to nurse an expectation, and without careful attention, it can – and in my case, most certainly did – grow to excessive, unwieldy proportions.

My expectations of how it would be to stand with my wife and two children on the Eiffel Tower observation deck had in fact grown so large over the years that they nearly overshadowed the many other memorable, magical moments we actually did get to share as a family while in Paris – strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens, eating dessert crepes late at night on the street outside our hotel, taking an evening taxi ride across several of the many bridges over the Seine to gaze at – what else? – the Eiffel Tower all lit up in the dark.

Fortunately for me, while my unfulfilled out-sized expectations nearly overshadowed all these other pleasures, they failed to do so completely.  And what I’m able to appreciate now, in hindsight, is that the totality of memorable, magical moments we did share completely overshadows any residual disappointment I might be feeling about that unrealized moment we didn’t get to share atop the Eiffel Tower.

It all comes down to the simple truth I try to reacquaint myself with each time I sit in meditation – whatever we’re experiencing in this exact moment is real, significant, and lasting; whatever we’re thinking about in this same, exact moment is transitory, insignificant, and ultimately unreal.

As I ponder the lesson this trip has taught me, I feel the weight of my two-decades-old expectation slipping off my shoulders at last, leaving me so much more free to engage in whatever experiences lie ahead – perhaps even a return visit to Paris, who knows? – with a keener appreciation of what’s happening right before my eyes, unclouded by any illusory expectations playing out in the back of my mind.

Now that seems to me to be an expectation worth cultivating for the next decade or two!  Would you agree?

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About Tom Cummings

A life-long news and current events junkie, an occasional political activist and volunteer, and for the past five years a practitioner of daily meditation and a student of Buddhist philosophy, I write this blog to explore what I see as the inherent tensions and contradictions between practicing mindfulness - so rooted in the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity, and non-attachment to self - and being an engaged citizen in today's world - where the very opposite traits are all too often the ones that prevail.
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2 Responses to What to Expect When Your Expectations are Excessive

  1. The great thing about a story is that it wraps the reader in to the subject nicely, doesn’t it, which your post does, Tom. Thanks. Identifying oneself with anything amounts to a loss of self; identifying with expectations can be crushing when they don’t conform to what happens… In some circumstances, perhaps this is the worst thing in the world.

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    • Such an interesting comment, Colin. I agree with your statement that identifying with anything results in a loss of self. And, paradoxically, Buddhism actually encourages us to lose our “self” by following exactly your prescription of not identifying with anything. By cultivating a sense of non-attachment to material things in this way, we open ourselves to the sense that our true nature is not that of a separate self, but of a being completely interconnected with all other beings. Amazing how many different ways there are to articulate the same wisdom!

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