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.

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Reconnecting with Society through Books

Books have always been my thing. I started reading the Harry Potter series in first grade and did not stop until a week after the Deathly Hallows release in 2007. In between books, I racked up hours devouring Sharon Creech novels and other fantasy series. This helped secure my annual victory in “Tons of Reading,” an elementary school class competition to determine the most avid reader.

By high school, I had read Fahrenheit 451 and was well into Gone with the Wind. But then life became busy and my pleasure reading was limited. Still, I managed to read classics like Animal Farm and Brave New World through my classes, and I savored every word.

But in my interactions with other readers I have noticed a glaring hole in my book repertoire. I have not read some of the most essential stories that seem to grace every must-read modern classics list. Against all odds, I have missed Kesey and Steinbeck and Vonnegut. I have not even read the great American novel, The Great Gatsby. When I fail to effortlessly quote and discuss these books–due to the fact that I have not read them–I feel inadequate as a self-proclaimed reader.

Imagine if a runner did not know about Steve Prefontaine or Joan Benoit Samuelson or Mary Decker Slaney. These people defined the sport of American middle distance and distance running. They paved the way for every distance runner that would follow. And they should be celebrated accordingly. Of course I know all about these runners because running is such a massive part of my life, but so is reading.

Alas, there is only one solution, and that is to read these books. So that is what I will do. I now present my list of Top 10 Books I Must Read Before I can Consider Myself a Fully Functioning Member of Society:

1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1972)

2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)

3. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey (1964)

4. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

5. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)

9. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe (1968)

10. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

As I compiled this list, I noticed an alarmingly common theme: all but one were published within a 20 year period between 1952 and 1972. This also happens to be the time period where I belong. My father recently said, “You are a flower child.” I am confident that these books will allow me to better understand my flower child roots and the era in which they began.

Surprise! I have already started my reading journey. In a recent week of strikingly sunny weather, I laid outside and read about war and time travel. That’s right, Kurt Vonnegut, I can now say “So it goes” without fear that my fraud will be detected. And I am well on my way to understanding Ken Kesey a little bit more through the eyes of Chief and McMurphy.

I will track the rest of my progress here and add a few thoughts as I finish the big ten. But for now, I will delve back into the Oregon insane asylum until I emerge one step closer to fully functioning personhood.

The Problem With Time

“I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.”

-John Burroughs

There is one problem that I cannot seem to solve: time will not slow down. Two weeks ago, I found this so alarming that I simply laid on my floor for hours in a desperate attempt to stop time. Not only did this fail to change the Earth’s course, but I became even more tuned in to the day’s revolution as I watched the room steadily darken. So I got up, finished my day and arrived at class the next day wholly unsatisfied with the weekend’s length.

This problem embeds itself most ruthlessly in my life during the school year; in the summer, I can easily escape via a spontaneous camping trip or hike. There, I can revel in simplicity and nature like the hippie that inhabits my soul. There, I can engage in hour-long conversations about the brevity of our existence. There, I can stop time.IMG_3857And the next day, I can escape reality again. I can explore hidden trails for miles atop an animal that understands my deeply rooted need for freedom. On horseback, I can fly.IMG_4009 - Version 2But at the end of these three glorious months, the same thing always happens. School always returns. And the weeks become monotonous steps in the gateway to conformity. I doze through science classes, eat tolerable dining hall food and evade the general population. By the time night arrives, I find schoolwork too mundane to capture my attention and avoid it in hopes that I can feed my intellect with information more vital to my entity. Every weekday brings routine and–for many months–an omnipresent drizzle.

My only release comes when I step outside and face the limits of my mental and physical capability. Because when I do this, when I run, I feel alive. I feel connected to the world and to the basic human condition. And even amid the muddiest and hardest runs, it feels like summer.Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 10.23.57 PM                        Plus I get to explore trails like this. And 85 minutes running these hills feels eons longer than 85 minutes in biology lab.

I find my freedom here so I can live without fear that I am missing something big, something meaningful that should reveal itself in society’s ingrained conventions. Because I know that right now, my classes do not exist to inundate my day with significance; they exist to teach me to think. And if I can think, then I can observe and experience the world with intent.

Time may not slow down, but summer will return, and when it does, I can marvel once again at sights like this:IMG_4216And that beauty is anything but ephemeral.