What do you expect from life? I’ve often been told that it’s better to keep your expectations as low as possible. That way you won’t be disappointed if things go badly. If things go better than you think, you will be pleasantly surprised.
Hoping to reduce pain and disappointment, I’ve given that approach a try, but have never been able to stick with it very well or very long.
Perhaps it’s a matter of personality as much as anything. I’m shy and not very courageous sometimes, but I’m also an extrovert, have a high energy level, and am something of a visionary. So to be passive or too easily satisfied – to give up on wanting or trying to make things better – doesn’t feel right to me.
Yet personality is only part of the puzzle I think. There’s surely a maturity element in all this as well. Rarely do I see people my age and older caught up in the grip of huge disappointments. Sometimes they are... but it seems to take more to knock them down. Their spouse leaving them; their careers or finances falling apart; their children making disastrous choices. But often, it's the young who are most debilitated by disappointments. Older folks know a little better, are not usually caught by surprise.
Long swaths of life experience do change us. They may harden us, dishearten us, teach us to give up and just want less. Even at a young age we may become bitter or cynical because of the things we’ve experienced.
Or our experiences may just help us develop better or healthier ways to find lasting satisfaction, to compensate for our weaknesses and limitations, and to hold onto expectations that, seasoned by time, are simply more informed, more realistic.
Could it be that that is what has happened to me? Lately I've noticed situations that once would have torn me apart have seemed much less of a big deal.
2. Summer Vacation, Friend or Foe?
Reading through some old journals, I found something I wrote in 2002. I was at my mom’s house for a while, following nearly a year overseas:
“I have that restless sense of depression that comes with vacation. I’m ‘supposed to’ be having fun, but any fun I feel good about requires someone to make [and carry out] a plan. Under the circumstances, that would be me. But planning means work. And I don’t want to work, because I’m on vacation!”I wrote that in the winter, but this time of the year often bring the same struggles and more. Yes, that old “It’s summer, and there’s nothing to do. I don’t have anyone to play with, and I’m booooooooorred!” thing. Which all of us may experience from time to time in childhood. For some singles the pattern continues into adulthood. I know it has for me. I visited a church in Houston last week which mentioned in its bulletin a “VBS” for single adults. Brilliant! I’d love to have special things like that to do in the summer. Social things, fun ones, planned and organized by someone else.
I used to struggle with this a lot more, though. I really felt bad about not having people to go out to lunch with after church on Sundays, or to be invited along on camping trips or holiday gatherings, and summers were the worst because most of the people I know consider their summer activities “family time.”
I know, I know, the obvious piece of advice is that I could grab the bull by the horns and reach out to others - especially the lonely ones - be the one to suggest fun things to do, organize them, and invite others along. None of those are my strengths, though, and I seldom had the courage and energy to overcome the inertia that stops me from doing things in my areas of weakness. Yeah, I can be a little pathetic, I know, and awareness of that makes me less likely to wish myself on other people - I have a hard time believing they might want to have me around.
I wondered if this summer would be harder than ever on that account, given how much “space” there is in my life already because of the sabbatical.
3. Sabbatical Fruit
But guess what? The sabbatical seems to be actually working! I may never like taking social initiative or organizing events, but the energy and courage to take on those things anyway, it's there. I'm also more hopeful and interested in the world around me. I have the strength and support I need to develop creative responses to life's challenges. And I'm even finding the roots of my strange and destructive tendency to assume that I'm unwelcome in other people's lives.
Perhaps as a result, the longer I’m on sabbatical the more things I think of that I could do while I’m on sabbatical. It will be over in a few months, but there are so many people I’d like to see, new skills or projects I’d like to try, old activities I’d like to revisit. And many of my conversations and the things I read about or experience just seem richer and more meaningful. I’m getting a lot more out of everything these days.
So, this summer, rather than living in a desert, I feel like I’m living in a rain forest. Everything seems colorful and interesting and growing.