Want, Hope, Expect

So much unhappiness in the world. I’m not talking about true suffering, where people starve, or are beaten, or have brain chemistry imbalances that make them depressive and suicidal. I’m talking about the dissatisfaction of people in perfectly good high-tech countries with plenty to eat and not much likelihood of being shot. People unhappy because they’re not making enough money, or getting enough sex, or don’t have enough friends, or their presentation didn’t win the award.

What would help this? Would reminding them of the starving children help? Usually not. A sense of proportion isn’t natural to us, I think–our emotions don’t automatically readjust when we think ‘it could be worse’. Although that helps, to some degree, it doesn’t solve the problem.

So let’s look at it from the other end: what is this unhappiness? Does it arise from wanting things we can’t have? From expectations that don’t come off?

I have a fourteen-year-old child. That means I have lots of first-hand experience with angsty, disproportionate unhappiness. I’ll give you a good example. She wants very much to lose weight, and for that reason is trying to eat better and getting a really lot of exercise. I’m very proud of her effort; she’s gone and researched it, and is working very hard. However, she’s still growing taller. When she went to the doctor and found that she’d only lost one pound (which, because of water weight and natural variation, is effectively no progress) she was cast into distress over it. Rather than thinking hey, I’ve not gained ANYTHING in this last few weeks… instead she said she’d worked very hard and got nowhere.

“Not fair!” is probably her most-used phrase. There is even less logic to many of her other grievances. Having to go to school five days a week seems to her like the worst thing ever: a huge imposition on her time and her resources, exhausting and boring her stiff. There oughta be a law against this stuff! Like all teenagers, to her the future does not exist. Neither the concept that as an adult, she will have to work harder for more hours, nor the concept of making some sacrifice now in order to improve her lot later, have any impact.

That sense of entitlement is what I want to talk about. The nature of expectation. I had a long unhappiness myself because I expected a romance to gel out of a friendship that showed all the signs. When it did not, I was very upset for a very long time. Not because I wanted it. Because I expected it. I felt I had a right to it, and the world was taking it away. It’s not a healthy attitude! I hope I’m doing better now, but I won’t swear to it until I have evidence.

So let’s define those terms.

Want. It used to mean ‘not getting a necessity’ like food or water. A person in want is not getting some or all of the basics, food, shelter, water, etc. Nowadays ‘I want’ just means there’s something you don’t have and you wish you did. It’s a desire.

Expectation. There’s a clear sense of entitlement in it, of something almost assured that will most likely happen, and you make plans accordingly. I think this is where so much of this disproportionate unhappiness comes from, at least in my own life. I have a strong tendency to see into the future, and if I turn out to be wrong, I get upset. It used to be worse; I used to be quite agitated if I didn’t know what was going to happen today, by the hour, on schedule, and if there wasn’t a plan, or if someone turned up late for something, it went against the grain. I’m nowhere near that bad now, but in emotional matters, I still project what I think’s going to happen, and it frequently sabotages me.

Hope. A wish for the future, without any constraint on what will really happen. Just a soft, fuzzy openness to the possibility, without making a plan. It’s what I strive for now.

I saw a bumper sticker at one point that made sense in this context. I don’t know where the original saying came from, and if anybody does, please enlighten me. To remember it as best I can, it went: Don’t try to get what you want; try to want what you’ve already got.

It’s not usually that simple. But I’m trying.


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