Great Expectations

Earlier this year, I made plans for a September cycling vacation in France. I did my research on the various group tour operators and options, and chose what I thought would be the best one: Provence! For several months in advance, I would visit the website with obsessive frequency, relishing the details of my upcoming trip: the beautiful countryside, gorgeous weather, charming hotels, artisanal food and wine. This would be the trip of a lifetime. And why not? I work hard. I deserve this.

Imagine my disappointment then, when on day two of the trip, I slipped outside my hotel and did a face plant that Buster Keaton would be proud of. (Note to self: never attempt to carry a bicycle down marble steps in cycling shoes.) Sadly, my right knee took the brunt of the fall, and instead of whizzing through vineyards at harvest time, I found myself instead laid-up in a hotel room with a bagful of ice covering a hematoma the size of a golf ball. Goodbye active vacation.

To say that I was disappointed is putting it mildly. This was not the script I had in mind when I booked this holiday. Worse than the physical agony I was in, was the torturous knowledge that I had visited this misfortune upon myself. I didn’t even have a good wipeout story to brag about when I got home (though I did think about inventing one). The truth was so much more prosaic, and depressing: I tripped on a friggin’ step. Why didn’t you just put the bike down, you stupid klutz? Why didn’t you take your shoes off? If only I hadn’t been in such a rush. If only…

I didn’t do much cycling after that, but I sure had a lot of time to think. And when I stopped feeling sorry for myself, I thought about how the problem was not so much my injury, but rather my expectation of how this trip was supposed to go. The greater our expectation, the more we attach to a particular outcome, the more crushing our disappointment when the reality comes up different. At this intersection of fantasy and reality, we can cause ourselves a whole lot of unnecessary suffering. And when we berate ourselves for tripping up, well, we only make it more painful.

I’m not suggesting that we always expect the worst; only that we attach very loosely to our desired outcome. If it happens that way, great! If it doesn’t, no biggie, we’ll figure something else out. For me, that meant brushing off my crappy attitude and realizing that I still had the privilege of a gorgeous view with plenty of good company. Thankfully, I hadn’t broken a leg or poked my eye out, though I easily could have. I soon found myself in the follow van doing what I do best – cheering other people on, and enjoying it.

As an adult, the opportunity for unmet expectations abound. The promotion you had your heart set on goes to someone else. The person you thought was your friend turns out not to have your best interests at heart. You didn’t get the investment you needed for your business this month. The good first date fails to become a second date. That all-nighter that you pulled to save the boss’s ass, she didn’t even notice it. Low levels of unmet expectations are something that we all experience daily. When you step back and look at it this way, it makes sense to minimize one’s expectations of positive outcome in most situations. That way if it happens, you’re pleasantly surprised, instead of being permanently pissed off.

Mistakes and setbacks are a natural part of life. A vital step in overcoming setbacks is being able to ask ourselves: “What can I learn from this situation?” From my non-cycling holiday in France, I learned to watch my footing when carrying large metal objects. I learned to slow down and really take in the view. I also learned a good dose of compassion. For myself and for others.

But perhaps the biggest lesson of all is forgiveness. Yeah, I screwed up royally. And I’ll probably do it again. So I’m not the badass cyclist that I probably like to think I am. That’s fantasy Ann. The reality is that I’m an average rider who occasionally trips on steps. When we can let go of the fantasy, reality becomes so much more enjoyable. And when we can forgive ourselves, it’s so much easier to forgive others. Expectations drive so much of our experience of life. We cannot control the outcome of any given event, but we can manage our perception of how things ought to be. It’s not what happens to us, but how we react to it that really matters. John Milton put it simply: “The mind can make a heaven out of hell, or a hell out of heaven.” I don’t believe he left anything out.