When I was in my 20s, I loved hosting wild parties. One year I was throwing a Halloween bash and was hellbent on my whole crew coming in costume and staying through the night. However, one of the guys was using his particular brand of manipulation (a combination of cajoling and insisting) to try to get the group to accompany him to another event downtown. I felt angry and anxious – my plan was derailed, my party was compromised, and my vision for how the night was going to go was shattered. And of course I resented that jackass for ruining everything.
Looking back, I feel compassion for this past version of myself – the young woman who sought control in all the wrong ways, and would become so disillusioned and disappointed when her thoughts did not manifest as reality.
Fast-forward to my 30s, when I had a surprise party for my daughter’s third birthday. She was with my parents while I prepared the apartment – balloons in her favorite colors and cartoon characters in every corner, yummy snacks that I knew she would love, artfully arranged gifts, and a very special cake. I pictured how it would all unfold: my daughter would arrive, burst into our home, and be utterly delighted by all the birthday decorations. We’d laugh, sing, and take funny and sweet photographs. I felt so dazzled by this daydream… until it all came tumbling down.
My parents knocked on the door, holding my daughter – she was flushed and groggy from a nap. She was also cranky and could care less about the decorations and food. She did open some gifts and cut the cake, but the effervescence that I envisioned was flat-lined.
Afterwards, when she was playing in her room, all of the emotion inside of me erupted and I bent over the kitchen counter, sobbing. All of my hard work, for what? Then I was flooded by my lifelong storyline of grasping for control and investing in expectation. The end result was always the same: disappointment. It was all so clear to me in that moment. I remember laughing through my tears, thinking what on earth made me think that my fantasy of a compliant, joyful, picture-perfect three year old would ever come true, especially around naptime!
I shared these two anecdotes today with my daughter, who is now almost eight. She was tickled to hear that her party was the source of a significant lesson for me, and we both had a good laugh thinking about her usually-mellow-mom being a bit “dramatic.” At the heart of our conversation was the fact that we control one thing: our behavior.
We can practice opening our minds to whatever will unfold, and go with the flow of life with as much acceptance, kindness, and patience as we can muster. Because for as much as we plan, prepare, catastrophize, fantasize, stress, expect… there is no telling what we’re going to get. What is guaranteed is that the more we fixate or try to control, the more disappointment we’ll experience.
Outcomes, even positive ones, will never precisely mirror the scenarios we create in our minds. Expecting people or life in general to comply with our wishes and perfectly fulfill our desires and expectations is an exercise in foolishness and futility. And I can say from experiencing countless special events, vacations, interactions, and situations that didn’t go the way I wanted: reality will never synch up with our thoughts on how it should be.
Hell is created when we expect Heaven.