Ants and expectations


One of the most resounding and enduring features of life, is that it refuses to conform to our expectations.

We generate these feelings about how the world “should” be, and the world just looks at us and says, “that’s nice dear, but here’s how it actually is.”

The weird thing is, that we tend to look at this state of affairs and think there’s something wrong with the world. That we’re right to have the expectations and the world is wrong to conform.

But this thinking only survives on our scale, in our own head.

Imagine an ant which wants to get from A to B.

On its journey, it discovers that some pesky humans have built a house in the way, so the ant thinks “this house shouldn’t be here”.

Chances are, you’re thinking “deal with it ant, the house ain’t moving just because you don’t like it”.

The house wasn’t built as a personal affront to the ant.

It wasn’t built to block the ant’s way, or ruin the ant’s life – even if it’s done both. The house – and those who built it, are completely indifferent to the ant.

When we are upset that the world doesn’t conform to our expectations, we are ants complaining about houses.

This doesn’t mean we can’t change the world, just that there’s no value in fighting it with our expectations.

Water falling from the sky

Rain by A Dombrowski

I hadn’t noticed that it had started raining.

But as I looked out the window I felt myself tighten in exactly the same way as I would react to something truly god-awful.

And it was just water falling out of the sky.

I thought about how unhelpful it was to react this way to something as commonplace and benign as rain.

And how many other rain-reactions do we have?

How many “oh shit” tensing up moments do we have each day, to what amounts to water falling from the sky?

Maybe we could start by not expecting that it will alway be sunny.

The wise will start each day with the thought, “Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.”… We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die. Mortal have you been born, to mortals you have given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything.


You get what you get and you don’t get upset

Handful by Windell Oskay

As a parent, there are little sayings which you end up reeling off to your kids to try to drill home some of life’s most important lessons – it turns out, many of them also rhyme.

“sharing is caring”

“gentle, not mental”

“champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends”

My personal favourite is from the nursery where my kids used to go:

“You get what you get and you don’t get upset”.

It’s a great little reminder that life isn’t always fair and there is little point in going bananas when it doesn’t meet our expectations.

After all, the world you live in is a complex system of interdependencies which have developed over the last 13.7 billion years. Your expectations? You made them up.

Expectations are an argument with an indifferent reality and the source of a lot of our suffering.

The sooner we can learn to let both expectations and social comparison go, and roll with the actual nature of the world, the happier we will all be.

The chains of expectation


Expectations are a limiting force.

I expect the sun to rise in the morning.

I expect to still have a job when I get to work.

I expect others to drive on the correct side of the road.

But we also harbour expectations about circumstances, events and people about which there is much less certainty.

I expect that I’ll feel like X tomorrow.

I expect that she’ll feel like Y if I say this.

I expect that this will turn our well/poorly/insert-judgement-of-choice-here.

But these expectations limit our curiosity, our ability to experience what’s here & now and our capacity to respond skilfully to our experience.

They limit our curiosity because expectation says “it will be like this”.

They limit our experience of the here & now because we’re constantly flicking back and forth between our expectations for comparison instead paying full attention to what is actually happening.

They limit our ability to respond skilfully, because the gap we perceive between our expectations and reality biases our future behaviour.

Expectations are simple, static, stakes in the ground which can never compare favourably with a fluid and complex reality.

If we want more harmony with reality, more understanding and acceptance of what’s actually going on and more skilful responses to it all, then we have to loosen our grip on our expectations.

We can stop filtering our experience and fuelling our resistance to the way things actually are. We can reignite our curiosity. We can stop expecting everything to be a certain way.