Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hope and Expectation

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.

In "Dante's Inferno", Dante reads this inscription at the gates of hell. Translated, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here". A bit intense (and maybe morbid) to start a blog entry, granted, but I think that at one time or another, each of us has felt so dejected that this doesn't feel too far off the mark. But classic literature is not the topic for today. Instead, I will describe what I believe to be the difference between hope and expectation.

The easiest way for me to describe the difference is by example. And, as it so often does, the topic of interpersonal relationships contains a wealth of examples to draw from. First, let's talk about expectation. Expectation, to me, is a very dangerous thing to hold. When we "expect", we rely upon something - or someone - outside of ourselves to do or be something that we believe it should do or be. We've all done this countless times, and will most likely continue to do so. It can be as harmless as "I expected you to be home by 5. Now it's 6:30, and dinner's cold!" What happened? You got angry because someone did not follow through with what you expected of them. In reality, you brought on this mental suffering you now have yourself. You really have no one else to blame for your anger than you. You made your own happiness dependent on something that you could not control - "control" being the key word here. Expectation is quite often tied with the notion of control. And believe me, you don't have as much control of things as you think you might have. The only thing you can "hope" to ever control is yourself, and that only after long, concerted effort.

A more serious example of expectation is following the prescribed steps of American adulthood. What are we taught? We should pay attention and do well in school, go directly to college, meet someone there, get married and get a job right after graduation, quickly buy a house complete with white-picket fence, and have 2.5 kids. Oh, and be a good little consumer. There. Done. Instant happiness, right? Ummm, yeah... not so much. But we followed the instructions! Shouldn't we be able to expect a perfect, happy life? Here the pitfall of expectation isn't so much about control, but more about blindly following societal norms, expecting that society will reward you with what you desire. This is rooted in ignorance, and you are still reliant on the external for your happiness rather than the internal.

And this is where hope comes in. Hope is focused on what might be, without an expectation that it's actually going to happen. If it does, great. If it doesn't, you weren't betting the farm on it to begin with. Your core, inner happiness is not dependent on it. Now I'm not saying that you can't feel sad if something you had hoped for doesn't come to fruition. Of course you can feel sad. It's a human emotion that I believe can be useful in some ways, mainly in concentration, retrospection, creation of art, and learning more about yourself and others. I can give an example of this from my own recent experience. Just last night, in fact, and one also pertaining to interpersonal relationships.

I have a friend whom I very quickly connected with, on a deep level. Among many other positive traits, she stood out because of her cautious, contemplative approach to the world around her. She concerns herself with the more difficult topics of life, unsatisfied by decreed convention, shallow endeavors, or dishonest or greedy motivation. The relationships she chooses to invest in reflect this. I consider myself privileged to count myself as one of her friends, to be "let in", and always enjoy the fulfilling conversations we have. I am forever thankful for having her in my life in this way. To be forthright, though, I will say that I had hoped for more - specifically for a more romantically intimate relationship. As it turns out, at least for the foreseeable future, that isn't going to happen. And that has made me feel sad. But the sad I'm describing isn't a sad born out of loss of something I expected I could "have". I've always had a problem with people referring to their partners in a way that implies ownership. I don't want that. Yes, I had hoped for more between her and I, but I'm not going to let that disappointment dictate whether I am happy at my core or not. It also says nothing about the worth I see in her. I am still thankful for how my life has been enriched through knowing her, I am still going to cultivate our friendship, and I am still very much dedicated to a path of self-awareness and generation of inner peace and happiness, for myself and others. I'm far from that goal, but at least I believe I'm on the right path. I know I can be happy without necessarily getting everything I had hoped for.

Speaking of "paths", I recognize that this notion of hope coming from within vs. expectation being dependent on the external probably causes a stir for those readers who ascribe to a theistic religion. A theistic religion, ultimately, dictates a reliance on an external entity for peace and happiness. This is very different from nontheistic religions, which instead focus on sharing tools for people to use in finding or creating their own happiness. I'm not going to sit here and write that one is better than the other for everyone. I can't decide for anyone other than myself. What I'm doing is pointing out that in theistic religions, there is an expectation that if you follow the rules demanded of you by your deity/deities, you will get what you want. Well, that's not my path. I've come to understand that my only hope for happiness is self-development. I can't even expect that the tools given to me by my nontheistic religion will just magically work by themselves. I have to find the ones that are best for me, and work at it. Yes, hope, like relationships, takes work. Hope without work is ridiculous, and almost always unfruitful. You have to get involved. It's like thinking you're gonna win the lottery without buying a ticket. You gotta pay to play.

Basically, you can't expect anything from anyone or anything. But you can work toward, and hope for, the best.

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