Expectations vs. Reality

Of all the things I’ve learned on this crazy road to “adulthood,” one of the hardest to cope with has been this: that the process of reality not meeting your expectations can be tremendously tragic. In fact, I’d say that most of the tears I’ve shed in the past few years have resulted directly from this phenomenon. Some of these tears have been good ones, like when I cried from the unexpected, overwhelming beauty that struck me on a desolate jeep road. But many of them have been hard ones, and those are the ones I’d like to address here.

For some reason, it’s so blasted hard to receive one thing in your life when you’re expecting another. Maybe it’s an expected afternoon off that turns into an afternoon shoveling sewage out of a room that sets off the waterworks. If only you had expected the sewage shoveling instead, it could’ve been better, right? Maybe it’s a lifestyle that you expected to be full of community and growth that in all actuality is quite lonely and stifling that brings about thoughts of depression. No matter what, the striking impact is undeniable.

Before I go on, there’s someone else who can touch this subject far better than I can, namely that stupendous 2009 film 500 Days of Summer. A crazy blend of rom-com, drama, and real-life heartache, this film’s gut-wrenching scene that plays out expectations vs. reality side by side still cuts me deep every time I watch it. A bit of context for the scene inserted below: the main character, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, is preparing to make another effort to win over the heart of Summer (played by Zoey Deschanel). We get a split-screen view of his expectations for the night & the reality of how things actually turn out. Warning, here be spoilers.



The Leadville Reality


I cringe every time I watch that. Outside of the piercing lyrics from Regina Spektor, I think there’s immense power to this scene because I’ve experienced the exact same thing over & over in my life. I set lofty expectations, be they for races, relationships, or careers, and then I’m forced to deal with the mental & emotional fallout that occurs when a much different reality comes crashing in with no regard whatsoever for my hopes & dreams.

Bringing this back to Leadville, my expectations for the road to 100 have been dashed multiple times thus far in the training plan. I came into the new year expecting to run a 100k in early March – and not to just run it, but to actually go out there & race it. Instead, reality saw me sitting on the sidelines the weekend of the race, nursing my fiery patella. I expected to be in a place where I could aim for a Leadville finish somewhere between 22 – 24 hours. Instead, I’m praying that I’ll just be able to squeak in under the 30 hour cutoff. I expected that my fitness level would be through the roof by June thanks to a couple months of intense, focused training. Instead, the muscle fibers in my quads are shot after 21 relatively moderate miles on our hill country terrain.

This has all had a far-reaching impact on my psyche, as the reality I’m working with has turned out to be much different from the expectations my body had been preparing itself for. Naturally, this has resulted in a multitude of emotions pulsing throughout my thoughts, with anger, frustration, impatience, and apathy being chief amongst them.

Learning to deal with all of these emotions has been a long, arduous process. For quite a while I wallowed deep within them, letting them mingle with the other unmet expectations in my life. This created what was arguably the world’s most potent self-pity cocktail, and I drank far too deep, digging myself into a deeper and deeper hole instead of learning to accept my reality and deal with it.

Eventually, thanks to some incredible friends, a fortuitous trip to the Guadalupe Mountains, and a somewhat happier patella, I began to reconstruct my framework. I came to grips with the reality I’d been given & reluctantly began to make new plans. I’m by no means fully recovered, but I’m functioning – and that’s saying a lot.

Sometimes, a chance morning photo from the Guadalupes greatly exceeds your expectations.

What now?

Since this whole idea of expectations vs. reality was thrust upon my mind, I’ve tried to figure out what the proper response would be. Do I never set any expectations, or maybe always set them quite low, thereby ensuring they’re never dashed? That seems appealing initially, but then I’m forced to consider how expectations allow us to better prepare for the situations that we’re soon to face. For example, if I expect that the upcoming afternoon of shoveling sewage is going to be long and draining, at least I can prepare and put myself in the proper mental state to face that challenge. If I don’t expect anything, I set myself up for certain failure when the onslaught of shoveling comes.

Perhaps the answer is found deep within an idea we’ve touched on before – balance. Maybe there’s a balance that exists here between trying to set appropriate expectations and becoming consumed with those expectations to the point where you’re unable to accept a reality that is anything but that which you’ve built up in your mind. It’s kind of like planning out a trip – you need the schedule, the itinerary, the goals. And yet you have to hold it all with an open fist, being ready to roll with the unexpected. Because if memory serves me correctly, it’s those unexpected turns that have led to some of the greatest adventures.

Or perhaps it’d be best to close with a discussion of how to deal with busted expectations. Perhaps we need to remember that at many times in our lives, no matter how hard we try, our expectations will fail to be met, and we’ll be left with a choice. Do we mourn the framework we held on so lofty of a pedestal in our minds? Or do we accept reality & do our darndest to embrace the new adventures it may hold? It’s really easy to say we’ll fight for the second… and by golly do I hope we’ll all be able to actively embrace that. I daresay the adventures of our lives will be better because of it.


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