If you’re anything like me, you often find yourself disappointed by the action (or inaction) of other people. In fact, I’ve lost count of the times in my life when people have behaved in ways opposite of my expectations. And I’m not talking about strangers. I mean friends; people I love. And so when I was sitting in church on a recent Sunday and the pastor chose the topic of expectations for his sermon, it of course got my attention.
The church pastor chose the theme of expectations as it relates to Christmas. This is, after all, the season of hope. We put up lights to express our anticipation of the season. We spend countless dollars to express our love to each other. And while I won’t proliferate on the “reason for the season,” Christmas does exist as a celebration of God’s son, sent to deliver us from sin and give us hope for our afterlife. Christmas is, at the most basic level, a season of expectations. From the commercial aspect of “I wonder what I’ll get,” to the more religious message of the season, the time between Thanksgiving and the new year is characterized by promise.
On the very same day of the aforementioned sermon, I took my mom to a holiday concert in the city. When the concert was over, I rushed out of the arts center to retrieve my car from a garage just down the street. I was one of the first in what became a very long line of people. I paid my fare and stood waiting on a very cold night for my car. While I waited, I engaged in small talk with fellow concert goers, but was soon distracted by a man who had entered the garage and was asking for money. His plea was made “to get something to eat.” Still engaged in conversation, I shuffled fingers around in my pocket and realized I had two dollars (left from the $20 bill I used to pay for parking). Politely, I excused myself from the conversation and approached the beggar whose back was turned toward me.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said and he turned.
Without words, I handed him my two dollars and smiled.
And without even a delay, he responded. “Don’t you have a five?”
As I’ve reflected on this interaction, I’ve come to understand a few things. None of them have anything to do with the beggar in the garage. (But I will note that I assumed he didn’t really want the money for food.) Instead, my realizations have everything to do with me and my expectations. You see, I acted with an expectation for gratitude that evening. I acted thinking that my actions would prompt others to be charitable. I hoped that I would walk away from that situation feeling good about myself. But because the man reacted the way he did, I left feeling disappointed. I left thinking that the people who’ve always told me that my expectations of other people are just too high were, in fact, right. I left feeling annoyed (and maybe even a little angry).
As I’ve had time to think more about that evening, my initial feelings related to this incident have faded. Today, after a lot of reflection, I believe more strongly than ever that high expectations are important. But it’s not the expectations we hold for other people that are important. It is the ones we hold for ourselves.
I am not making excuses for the callous response of the man in the garage. I will never think he was even close to polite. (And I still don’t believe that it was food he wanted to buy.) But his inability to live at my level of expectation should not have the power to change the way I behave. After all, to compromise oneself is the greatest disappointment of all.
In this season of hope, I will continue to have expectations. But they will be for myself: a capacity to be kind; a willingness to be generous; an eagerness to learn and grow; a living that serves others with caring and respect; and the ability to see the hidden lessons in every experience. My hope is that I am able to do all of these things without expectation of reciprocation; to do them simply because they are, for me, the right things to do. In them, I have a feeling that I’ll find a greater joy than I can imagine.
Maybe that was the best two dollars I spent this year.