Setting expectations for ourselves is akin to walking through a minefield. No matter how gingerly we tread, we inevitably misstep, and when we do, we rarely hit a dud that fizzles without doing harm. Standing there in the debris of our disappointment, we conduct a vain search for the enemy, which more often than not proves to be our own desire to do too much too well and too quickly.
Initial triage reveals a gaping wound left by our sense of failure. For failure, after all, is multi-talented and ubiquitous. It can rear its ugly head anywhere, and there are few realms in the big bad world that offer so many opportunities for achievement.
For some, the possibility of failure can be paralyzing, even when it is wrought by a bar set impossibly high. But my children seem to forge ahead undaunted, as long as the list of expectations is of their own making. They are still of that refreshing age when they believe they can expect to achieve anything.
In the weeks leading up to the end of school, I watched cautiously as they piled their plates high with summer plans to grow taller, to improve their endurance on the basketball court, to make new friends, and to broaden their worldview. While I enjoyed their casual ambition, my kishkes groaned with the fear that September would arrive on a wave of disappointment.
Remarkably, though, they have amazed me here at the seasonal half-way mark.
One left for camp shorter than his mom and returned with a bird’s eye view of her scalp. He also resolved to “become a better person,” and the truth is that he is making enormous effort to quarrel less with his brothers. His heart seems to have expanded in the sun.
Another took his first stabs at archery with surprising success and had the courage to get on the bus to overnight camp without knowing another soul. Though we had to pick him up on visiting day, there is no doubt that he was braver than I’d ever have been at his age.
And the third has at long last used his iPhone as a source for good, giving his brain a hardy workout. He loaded it with a CD to teach himself Croatian, and let’s just say that my husband and I no longer consider it our secret language.
Despite my own pronounced fear of failure, my summers are still heady with possibility, too. Though they are a mere 60 days if we discount June as a school month, I still hope – nearly every year – to declutter the entire house, shrink to a six 6, and write volumes. I plan big, but realistically, I’m satisfied if, come Labor Day, I’ve tackled one drawer in the kitchen, lost a few pounds, and managed to post this blog.
But I have another set of expectations, ones that loom much higher on the horizon between my reality and the end of the yellow brick road. Though not entirely fantastical, they are just a pinch out of reach. And yet, these wants leave the largest scar when they elude me as I navigate my way through a minefield riddled with what I imagine my life should be.
I want to forget, just for a moment, that I’m an adult with a BMI who shouldn’t eat that bowl of pistachio ice cream. I want to ignore the passing of years long enough to allow 24 hours a day to suffice. I want to throw caution to the wind so that I can replace mindless, unsatisfying obligations – at least some of them -- with the diversions I truly love.
This summer, when fulfillment of expectations seems genuinely possible, my boys approached Oz with unapologetic greed. It is I, sadly, who missed the moment while I tarried behind with the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Man, shouting Go, boys, go! as my sons ran ahead. I failed to make the leap of faith required to get all the way there. Fear stopped me in my tracks.
Still, the summer hasn’t been a total loss. Should it ever come to pass that I find myself face to face with the Wizard, I do at last know what I would seek.
For starters, I would like some extra smarts, enough to know that I should embrace who I am without insecurity or embarrassment. I mean really. I’m too old to be worried what people might think and I should discount anyone who expects more than that of me. I would wisely save a little of what I’m granted for a rainy day, a reminder that my quirks and eccentricities are all law-abiding and ethical, and therefore, just fine.
Next, I’d ask for a second heart, one that would kick in when I need to have compassion for myself. It would force me to accept my right to fallibility, even when I inadvertently fail those whom I most love in the world or when all the tip-toeing in the world keeps me from safe passage.
And finally, I would plead for courage of superhero proportions. That should be enough to help me take those first steps into the minefield, ready to face my anxiety about change, the boys growing older, and the challenges that await me on the road ahead.
All of that, plus a little of Dorothy’s pluck and maybe some ruby slippers, and I might at last find my way to the Kansas of my expectations.