08/03/2010 11:17 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Learning to Love in a World of Failed Expectations

We are living in a world of failed expectations, especially given the present economic crisis. Losing fortunes, billionaires kill themselves; others have their homes foreclosed; others lose their investments, their retirement funds, their life savings and their jobs. Would it be safe to say none of these expected to suffer loss, and that
their actual expectations were quite different??

Not only do we tend to expect to have basic needs met in a civil society, but one also tends to expect that certain conditions will yield happiness. If I get a high-paying job and a big house and car, I will be happy. The false presumption is that we will find the happiness we seek in the next brainstorm or fantasy, in money, in another person, in a vacation to Tahiti, in a new project, a church, an ideology, whatever. It doesn't pan out, or if it does, it doesn't last. So we diligently run on to the next pipe dream, thinking, "This time, I will make it work!"

Expectations can be just as badly bound up in more immediate concerns, the desire to be seen or loved, and the demand that other people live up to their obligations or promises. People let us down and screw up, or even deliberately mislead and take advantage of us. For me, part of the way of not giving in to the impulse of seeking my own safety and security in other people is to remember how often I have screwed up, put myself first, not met my most basic obligations to other people, and let other people down. We often do not live up to all of our obligations ourselves, yet we expect others to meet theirs and if they fail, we show no grace or leniency. More than that, we often create expectations from other people that are unrealistic, and that they are not in reality obligated to fulfill, then become angry when they do not meet them.

One shouldn't focus expectations, therefore, on a person or a group of people, on a pastor or bishop or teacher, but on Christ. This is easier to say, of course, than to do. I have often met people who have left the Church, disavowed Christ, or gone on their way into something else because they are disillusioned due to scandal, or because some person in a position of authority or a group of people let them down, or didn't meet their expectations, whether reasonable or unrealistic. But if we, as Fr. Thomas Hopko advises, "expect only to be tempted to our very last breath", the failures of others would not have such an effect. False or misplaced expectations can have devastating consequences.

On a basic level, we expect to not be hurt by other people. I once heard a monk say that when someone says an unkind word or treats you badly it is a wound that cannot be avoided, and should be acknowledged as such. It isn't something to repress or pretend isn't there. One is inflicted, one is wounded. But he said that at this point, you have a choice: you can judge the person who has wounded you by thinking such thoughts as, "he's not a very good person", or "I didn't deserve that", which is unproductive and not helpful. Or, he said, you can turn the infliction into a pathway to the heart, and in prayer, use the energy of the wound to pray, not in self-righteousness, but with heartfelt urgency, "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner." This, he indicated, strengthens the spirit, and encourages one's own heart to love even his enemy, the level of love to which Christ calls his disciples.

False expectations are built upon the assumption that we deserve certain deserts. I expect certain things from other people, or certain things to happen for me, because I think I deserve it. I believe I deserve it because I think I am something I am not.

So although I may have reasonable expectations bound up in human dignity -- such as to be able to eat, to be able to work and live without being violated, to have access to health care and the freedom to live in a non-hostile environment and to give and receive mutual respect from my neighbors -- it is naive and foolish to hold onto these in an absolute or demanding way. It is naive and foolish because the world is in a state of ruin, and although redeemed and liberated by Christ, the process of its eschatological realization is slow. And though one may reasonably expect others to keep their promises and fulfill their obligations, it isn't reasonable for one's security or happiness to be based upon that kind of expectation. Things happen. People have problems, circumstances change. We die. Sanity involves accounting for this and cutting other people slack.

Certainly, some expectations are perfectly reasonable; but there are many expectations, I think, that arise from an elevated sense of the self; they surface from self-absorption and pride. If we are humble, which means nothing more than having a real view of ourselves, we will expect nothing but to be tempted, per Fr. Thomas, until our very last breath. On another level, of course, there is tremendous expectation in the life of faith, but it is all invested in God, not in less trustworthy circumstances, or in people, or in human institutions, or even in ourselves.

To see ourselves in light of our own frailties and mistakes, our passionate proclivities, makes it easier to forgive when others let us down. That is the more responsible path. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says, "those who have been forgiven much, love much." When others fail us, it's an opportunity to forgive. When we forgive others, we find forgiveness for ourselves, and when forgiven, we are liberated to love others, even our enemies. No one expects much from his enemy, which makes love all the more powerful, a love expecting nothing in return. If we have that same love for people who are our friends as well, there is no greater happiness than this.