When Expectations (Always) Fail to Become Reality

One of my favorite scenes in the movie (500) Days of Summer is titled “Expectations vs. Reality.” It follows Tom, the main character, as he goes to his recently ex-girlfriend Summer’s house for a party. He anticipates that the party will rekindle their love and that they will end the night together again, but he soon realizes that it is actually her engagement party. The scene shows Tom’s expectations on one side and the reality of the situation on the other. Rather than end in romance like Tom hopes, the night ends when he leaves early because he cannot handle it.

Optimism is a funny thing. It sounds fantastic in theory–always look on the bright side of life, glass half-full, silver linings, sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, etc. A life lived expecting the best from every person and every situation seems bulletproof. Everything is peachy and nothing hurts.

Except sometimes optimism doesn’t work. Sometimes it causes more heartbreak and disappointment than pessimism ever could because sometimes expectations simply cannot match reality. In any situation that involves two people, one person’s optimism can never compensate for the other’s lack of reciprocation. While the pessimist may foresee the worst and prepare accordingly, the optimist will not accept that awful possibility. So when it inevitably becomes reality, the optimist feels crushed beyond repair. Something that initially seemed impossible becomes all too real, and the optimist is blindsided by the concurrent feelings.

Tom is an optimist. He wanted Summer back and assumed that it would happen that night. He could not predict that she was engaged because she was the only one for him, so he must be the only one for her. The idealized version of their relationship convinced him that they would end up together. Anything else was simply not an option. When the situation’s absoluteness became apparent, the only thing he could do was flee.

There is a term for the uncomfortable and agonizing feeling that accompanies failed expectations: cognitive dissonance. When our brains attempt to process two conflicting truths, especially when one challenges all previous beliefs, we are left to decide which holds more value. Tom enters the party knowing that he loves Summer, but she is engaged. He cannot immediately accept this information because all previous evidence suggests that if she would not marry Tom, she would not marry anyone. Cognitive dissonance instills an uneasiness in him that he can only alleviate with time.

I have been victim to the soul-crushing realization that the romanticized moments I imagine will never actualize far too many times. I have set my hopes beyond reasonable doubt and dreamed massive dreams because like Tom, I always expect the best. I know that in at least one parallel universe, these dreams are possible. If I could control the situation, I could ensure that my absurd expectations ensue. And if there were not other people involved with complicated stories and complex emotions, then everything would be fine. But cognitive dissonance is my nemesis, and the resulting desperation takes over.

I am certain that the despair I feel upon failed expectations would be far less poignant without my relentless optimism. But I am also certain that the ecstasy that accompanies exceeded expectations would be far duller. I allow myself to experience the full spectrum of emotions because when I do, I open myself to the profundity of humanity. These feelings make me mortal, and my life would be meaningless without the extremes on both ends. Cognitive dissonance can be unbearable, but its bite means that I felt something.

Tom did not get Summer back that night, but it hurt because he loved her so deeply. And the authenticity of that feeling is all that matters.