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.


That One Time I Was Censored for an Article About Gay Rights

A little over a year ago, I wrote an article for my high school newspaper in support of gay rights. In that same paper, one of my co-editors wrote an article to support the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana. The day the paper came out, the principal told us that we could not publish the paper online until we made changes. I went to a Catholic school, and he did not believe that our articles adequately represented a Catholic view. Because they didn’t.

My assertions that homosexuality is normal and that marriage should be an obvious equal right were intentionally mild, but still entirely genuine. I could have used stronger language and more impassioned examples, but my intent was not to shock. My intent was to present a compassionate view on the subject that people might consider with an open mind. But my most fundamental arguments were still too disparate from Catholic belief. The principal met with us and expressed his concern.

“What exactly would you want me to change?” I asked. He responded the next day with a two page e-mail. Essentially, I would have had to change my entire stance on the normalcy of homosexuality, and to me that was unacceptable.

Instead, I discussed the fact that our newspaper was being censored at length with my teacher. For the sake of honest journalism and free speech, neither of us felt comfortable changing the story, so the paper remained unpublished. At least until this January, when my teacher informed me that in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she had published the original paper online with only an added disclaimer. It was a small victory, but it allowed me to share my voice uncensored.

Today, a much bigger victory happened in Oregon. Gay marriage is finally legal, and it feels so right. There a few causes I support more wholeheartedly than gay rights. The need for equality is obvious. I struggle to understand how anyone could limit not only a basic human right to marriage, but also love itself.

Love may be the most ambiguous and abstract word in the English language, but everyone can understand its power. At the basic level, it is pure and transcendent. On a more complex level, it can overwhelm everything. Decisions based in love are often selfless and rarely destructive.

The fight for gay rights is a fight for love, and anything with that basis cannot be stopped. The ability to experience this historic fight is exhilarating, but it should have ended long ago. Still, I cannot wait to tell future generations about how I remember the day that Oregon legalized gay marriage. Obviously, they will be super impressed that I’m that old because gay marriage won’t even be discussed separately from straight marriage at that point.

I am elated that Oregon can now be an example of compassion and equality, and I am excited to witness the continued spread of love. Equality will prevail.

Christmas Without Santa

Identical to every Christmas Eve, Adam climbed into bed at precisely 10 p.m. and forced his eyes shut, determined to sleep before Santa arrived at his suburban home. All the familiar feelings flooded his mind–anticipation, glee, curiosity–but an anxiety lingered that he could not shake. Though he had clearly not done anything terribly wrong all year, the uncomfortable possibility that Santa might again skip his house tainted his thoughts. By some terrible twist of fate, the jolly old man had not delivered any presents in the seven years since Adam had moved to McGuire Street with his family. Adam spent hours contemplating this tragedy but still could not fathom any reason other than Santa’s own error. After all, their home had an ideal roof, plenty of sweets and even a roomy chimney.

xmas house

It simply had to be Santa’s fault and not his own; after 30 straight years of presents–even with questionable behavior–Santa could not possibly deem Adam unworthy.

xmas adam

While Adam mourned his own lack of presents silently, he felt terrible for his daughter Elizabeth, who in her seven years of life had not once experienced Santa. Every year Adam assured Elizabeth that on Christmas Eve night Santa would fill the living room with presents and every year Elizabeth awoke to an emptiness only partially filled by Adam’s own gifts for his daughter.

xmas living room

Of course it did not help that Adam’s wife had died in a car accident shortly following their move into the new house, which left Adam alone to care for his young child with only an accountant’s salary to help. Adam budgeted what he could to purchase gifts for his daughter but without Santa’s generosity his attempts were in vain; nothing could match the magical mornings with which he had grown up.


The week before, Elizabeth had revealed to her classmate Leah that she did not expect much that Christmas.

xmas chat

Leah immediately fell into a laughter broken only by Elizabeth’s pleas for an explanation.

“You actually believe that?” Leah said, “All that Santa mumbo-jumbo?”

“Of course,” Elizabeth said.

Leah chuckled again and leaned closer to Elizabeth. “I know a secret,” she said, “Santa isn’t real.” This time Elizabeth laughed. Santa not real? The thought was absurd.

“I’m serious,” Leah said, “It’s all fake. I watched my parents put out presents last year but they were all supposed to be from ‘Santa.’ There’s no way he’s real.”

Elizabeth stared back in bewilderment for several seconds while she carefully dissected Leah’s proposition. According to her father, Santa had stopped delivering presents only when he had begun to spend Christmas away from his parents. Her mother had never been alive for a Christmas with her so following Leah’s theory it would be Adam’s sole responsibility to provide presents from “Santa.” Elizabeth’s jaw dropped.

“My dad believes in Santa,” she said, “But he’s wrong. Santa was never real.” Once she recovered from her initial shock, Elizabeth began to form a plan in her mind. She spent the next six days focusing solely on her Christmas plan. Every day after school she went to her room, dragged the craft box from her closet and worked diligently until bedtime. During the day her mind raced with new ideas and at night she slept soundly from exhaustion. She thought of nothing but Christmas morning until the day finally arrived.

xmas elizabeth

Adam’s eyes shot open the second Elizabeth entered his room.

“Wake up Daddy,” she said, “It’s Christmas!” A familiar rush flowed through his body and his heart fluttered with excitement.

“I’ll meet you downstairs,” he said before pulling on his favorite reindeer pajamas and hurriedly brushing his teeth. The anxiety from the night before remained, but nothing could falter his Christmas spirit. Minutes later, he descended the stairs hoping to see anything but the scene he had arranged the previous night.

“He came, Daddy,” Elizabeth said, “Santa came!”

Adam turned the corner to a sea of color and glitter that filled his heart with a joy he had not known for seven years. Feebly wrapped presents spilled from beneath the tree while the two hanging stockings threatened to fall from their weight. Sparkles littered the floor and directed his eyes to the gifts’ labels which read “From: Santa” in suspiciously youthful handwriting. He glanced at his daughter, whose glitter-laden face bore a smile so pure he could not help but grin in return.

xmas final

The two immediately got to work unwrapping presents. Elizabeth eagerly fed gifts to her father, who discovered that Santa had chosen a distinctively homemade route that year. The room soon filled with crumpled wrapping paper and construction paper masterpieces disturbed only by the occasional beaded creation. When they reached the last present, a doll for Elizabeth from Adam himself, Elizabeth beamed and reached under the table.

“Wait Daddy,” she said, “I have one more present for you.” She handed him a small piece of construction paper and his eyes filled with tears as he read the carefully crafted words.

“Thank you,” he said, “Thank you for a perfect Christmas.”

xmas poem