Expectations and Commitment

2007 June 18
by barclay

Last night I ran into a girl I haven’t seen in a while. We talked about significant others’, work, and life status in general. Eventually, she asked me where I my relationship with my girlfriend is going.

“Well, there you’re diving down the rabbit hole. You’re asking a question that, to understand my answer, requires you to view the world through my, perhaps skewed, philosophical perspective. Or I can give you the canned answer, but it won’t be as interesting.”

She attempts to cut me off at the pass: “So it sound like you don’t think it’s going to last?”

“Sounds like you don’t want the canned answer.”

“No.”

“Then it’s not that easy. See, desires are driven by the ego. The ego gets you into trouble. Not achieving your desires gets you into trouble. You know the parable about the man who dreams he’s being attacked by a tiger, right? And he’s so scared in his nightmare that he wakes, sweating profusely with his heart racing? Well, the tiger wasn’t real, but induced completely real issues: he’s scared, sweating, and his heart is pounding.”

“You weren’t joking about about it being a philosophical question.”

“Nope. But stick with me. Although you asked about a ‘good thing’ – my relationship – and I gave you and example of a ‘bad thing’ – a nightmare – but at the core they have the same essence: desires. You could turn the parable around and say that the man’s desire to hold on to life is what created the vulnerability that causes him to worry about losing it in the first place. He was worried about losing something that he wasn’t even in danger of losing. On a smaller scale, our desire for things like a better job, TVs, a new car, etcetera – things we don’t even have – open these vulnerabilities. We start to worry and stress about losing things we don’t even have yet. Doesn’t that seem silly?”

“I suppose. But I don’t see how you can be with someone for nearly a year and not have expectation as to where it’s going.”

“That’s just the issue: expectations. I try not to have ‘expectations.’ As someone I respect very much recommended, I try to give thanks for those things that work out in my favor, but I try not to ‘expect’ them. Otherwise, I open myself to losing things I don’t even have. It’s like grasping for clouds – only through the act of attempting to own do you realize your failure. I give thanks for what I receive, but realize that tomorrow the world may change. Using the canonical example, what if I get hit by a bus tomorrow morning?”

“It sounds like an excuse not to get emotionally invested. You’re over thirty, right? Do you just want to bounce around to different girls; to be a gigolo for the rest of your life?”

“Ah, there you went from one end of the spectrum to the other: the expectations of interminable fairy-tale love, to the complete absence of it. The problem with both views, as I see it, it that both are static caricatures. No one is static; everyone’s always slowly but subtly changing. I think the relationships that end up going the distance are the ones where people evolve in similar or complementary directions, while some end because people evolve in incompatible directions. And that’s not to say that it’s someone’s ‘fault’, other than the prevalent mis-guided perception that everyone will be tomorrow who they are today. In fact, in the west, that’s frequently seen as a noble quality, while to me it seems quite absurd.”

“So now you’re indicting marriage?”

“No, not at all. Even I may get married some day. But I’m not operating under the assumption that it’s immutable. Just because you realize that there’s the possibility the world as you know it may change in an instant, doesn’t mean you don’t commit yourself completely to what you’re doing right now. In fact, it may even be an argument for working harder than ever, and not procrastinating. This recognition of flux isn’t a license for apathy. I definitely have goals that I strive for. But there difference is that I don’t expect to achieve them – I work my ass off to get there, and if I get there, I try to accept the results gracefully. If I don’t get there, I try to do the same.

“Most people don’t seem to be able to believe that one can work whole-heartedly toward a goal – say, a new job or a marriage – but at the same time not ‘expect’ to succeed. In the U.S., at least, it comes across sounding like ‘not believing in yourself’ – which is almost heretical to western ears – although I see it as something even stronger: I believe in myself, and I’m also aware of the world. The most prevalent western epithet I’ve heard that can capture some essence of this is the Serenity Prayer: ‘God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.’ So asking me to extrapolate where my relationship is going is a non-trivial question. I’m trying to let both her and myself evolve, and hopefully we evolve together. Make sense?”

“So your relationship has potential, right?”

“Yeah.”

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