Dear Older Self,
You have lived long enough to know that life does not always meet your expectations. Sometimes it exceeds your expectations. And sometimes it falls short. Sometimes, it falls very short.
When your expectations are exceeded in some way, it is good to be grateful. The problem usually comes when expectations are not met. If you are unable to let go of unmet expectations and accept reality for what it is, you are likely to grow resentful, maybe to the point of becoming bitter.
You have seen the pain that unmet expectations can create. For instance, you knew a man who worked long hard hours all his life, hoping to finally have some time to travel when he eventually retired. But he was diagnosed with a debilitating chronic illness before he made it to retirement. He was not able to travel as he had hoped. It was a painful process to accept this and to let go of those expectations.
You also know several people who hoped to be able to retire at 65 years of age, only to discover that they needed to find some way to continue to bring in income for as long as possible in order to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Their expectations of what aging might be like had to be altered considerably.
And you have seen some in the generation ahead of you grow resentful because their adult children or grandchildren were not meeting their expectations in their political beliefs, or religious practices, or work and relationship decisions. Their expectation was that children were to somehow “fall in line” with the elderly parent, rather than create a life of their own.
Perhaps the most common expectation you have watched elderly family members and friends struggle with have been expectations that their adult children, grandchildren, or other family members would be more involved in supporting them, visiting them, or taking care of them. When their expectations did not match what these family members were able to do, or chose to do, resentments began to grow.
One woman you knew talked bitterly about her adult niece and nephew who lived nearby but who rarely came to see her. She had no sympathy for the demands on their time and energy that made it difficult for them to be more involved in her care and support. And she had no perspective on the fact that she had not done much to develop a relationship with them over the years.
You know what it is like to work to support and care for elderly family and friends, only to hear complaints and criticisms that what you are doing is not meeting their expectations. You know what it is like to hear that your visits are not long enough and not frequent enough. You know how discouraging this can feel.
What I want you to keep in mind, dear older self, is that you have observed a crucial difference between people who hung on to their expectations and those who have learned to let go of expectations and accept what is.You have seen how hanging on to unmet expectations leads people to be resentful and bitter and how letting them go allows for a more peaceful state of mind and for much greater ease in relationships.
Learning to embrace what is, rather than insisting that things be what you expected them to be is a bit of wisdom captured in the expression “living life on life’s terms.” It is the acknowledgement that there are many things in life you do not control. It is the humility of accepting your powerlessness over people, places and things.
Remember the insight you gained about letting go of expectations that came from reading William P. Young’s The Shack? At one point in the story, he writes about the difference between expectations and expectancy. The idea is that expectations are an attempt to control people and circumstances. They are ridged, performance oriented and based in judgment. For these reasons, expectations are often harmful. By contrast, expectancy is full of possibility, full of wonder and hope. Expectancy is an openness to life in all its ordinariness, all its gifts, all its sorrow and all its joy.
Living with expectations can leave us feeling impatient, pressured, pessimistic and judgmental when people and events do not go our way. In contrast, living in expectancy is characterized by living with patient hopefulness in the midst of life. Expectancy creates an openness to observe and delight in the unfolding of life and relationships—receiving with gratitude the gifts we are given one day at a time.
So, dear older self, do the ongoing work of letting go of expectations. Practice embracing what is with a sense of possibility, gratitude and patient hopefulness.
This meditation is taken from Notes to Our Older Selves: Suggestions for Aging With Grace by Juanita Ryan and Mary Rae. You can get a copy at Amazon.com