The Blessing and the Bane of Expectations
Expectations exert a powerful influence over our lives. Psychologically, they can orient us away from the past and into the future with the belief that a change will take place. This belief in turn can make it easier to entertain new thoughts and to experiment with new behavior. The expectation that we will meet the Savior can increase our watchfulness and encourage us to try saying the Jesus prayer and making some time for prayer alone. Saint John Chrysostom even teaches that being watchful and in a state of expectation is what enables us to enjoy the benefit of the grace of God (Homily on Acts PG 60.21). Expectation can indeed be a blessing, when it is based on the word of the Lord, which is true and endures forever.
Expectations based not on Christ’s word, but our own imagination, however, can be a bane on both a psychological and a spiritual plane. Such false expectations about people, places, and things may lead to further delusion, disillusionment, despondency, or a host of other false states that may cause damage to the psyche as well as the soul.
Many of the problems associated with expectations of this sort arise from the fact that they are fundamentally unrealistic. In chapter seven of Ancient Christian Wisdom, I allude to this issue without delving too deeply into the notion of expectations. “Sometimes, patients list aims over which they have little control, such as changing someone else’s behavior. In such cases, therapists encourage them to rework the goals that they set for others into behavioral goals for themselves.” In dealing with this particular issue, the ancient fathers have a similar approach, “Alongside recalling Divine Providence, ancient monastics also advise the faithful to use self-reproach as a basic interpretive principle in order to avoid judging others who sin as well as to prevent agitation, anger, and pride. For example, when Saint Dorotheos would notice a brother failing in some way to lead a Christian life, he would say to himself, ‘Woe is me, him today and surely me tomorrow.” Instead of expecting others to be different, we expect ourselves to be no better, but even worse, if we fail to repent. And so repent we do.
Rather than fomenting expectations about life involving people, places, and things, both cognitive therapists and the ancient fathers counsel an analysis of those expectations in the light of firmly grounded experimentation, problem solving, and goal setting. The ancient fathers discuss this in terms of theoria and praxis. Ancient Christian Wisdom recognizes these similar threads, “in short, long before cognitive psychology appeared on the scene to correct one-sided behavioralism, patristic tradition had a unified understanding of human mental functioning in terms of theoria and praxis. Although theoria occupies a place of preeminence in patristic thought, even as cognition does in cognitive therapy, nevertheless, praxis is often addressed first in the spiritual life. Praxis takes the form of bodily asceticism, which is seen as a necessary supplement to an asceticism of the heart. Prudently directed ascetic activity is especially useful in breaking sinful habits and acquiring contrition and purity. Clearly defined behavioral practices-such as fasting, vigil, prostrations, standing, spending time in church and so forth-aim at fighting specific passions and acquiring distinct virtues. In cognitive terms, these practices can be understood as behavioral interventions that aim at altering spiritually maladaptive schemata and fostering new adaptive beliefs conducive to a virtuous life.”
The saints are those who have adapted to the circumstances of life, most especially to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They trust in the blessed expectation provided by Christ and on a personal level maintain realistic expectations about themselves and others. For example, to embark upon the true Christian life with the unrealistic expectation that there will be no suffering involved is a recipe for disaster and disillusionment. And it is also a failure to attune our expectations according to the word of the Lord, “In the world ye shall have tribulation.” And what is the world of most people, their jobs, their spouses, their children, and their health. Yes, we will have tribulation. When we accept that fact, we can focus on what we can change and not on what we cannot as we mentioned earlier in the post on the serenity prayer. Furthermore, we can make the second important part of the Lord’s instruction apart of us, “But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” He has overcome our world as well. That is the blessed expectation that brings us peace and calmness in the midst of every storm.