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What Did You Expect?

December 1, 2019
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Really, what did you expect?

I mean from all the fun you had planned at Thanksgiving with your friends and family? It was going to be so awesome, wasn’t it?

And if it turned out awesome, more power to ya. Really.

But for a whole lot of people, the expected wonder and happiness of the Thanksgiving holiday didn’t work out so well. Some families had quarrels and fights (yes, among young cousins and siblings, but also among adults who should have known better and done better). Some people were facing an empty place at the table for the first time after the death of a loved one. Or an empty place setting in honor of a loved one’s military service and posting far away from the Thanksgiving table. Others spent the holiday at the side of a hospital bed. Hoping, praying. Just trying to take a breath under the strain of the crisis. Or sweating it out in a waiting room.

And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what can go wrong on a holiday like Thanksgiving. As bad as these things were for those who experienced them, there are tons of other things that could be added to the list.

There’s a common denominator in all of them. Even the ones that involved circumstances beyond anybody’s control. For all the bad Thanksgivings, this one thing stands among them in common. Expectations. Specifically, unmet expectations. They will mess with your mind and throw a live grenade into your plans for happiness.

I used to think the way to deal with this was to just quit having expectations. If you have no expectations, you’ll never get disappointed, right? I suppose this is true, but I’ve never known anybody who’s been able to pull this off. The people I know who say they’ve done it, generally are no better off than those of us who can’t. We deal with our disappointment. They tend to deal with both denial and disappointment. And add this to the mix: resentment.

We’ve stepping across the calendar line into Christmas Time (actually, Walmart and Target did this the week before Halloween, but who’s counting? I am…). If people have high expectations for Thanksgiving (and they do), then the expectation level for Christmas is Mt. Everest-size. So what this basically means is that smart people will buckle their seat belts for the bumpy Christmas Time ride. Because, like it or not, it will probably get bumpy.

I’ve told you that I don’t think eliminating expectations is the answer. Even if you could assassinate them, they’d only go under ground and then pop up at a very inconvenient and awkward time. If eliminating expectation isn’t a good option, what is?

I’m going to give you an answer that is much easier for me to write than it is for me to do. This doesn’t make it un-useful, it just frames it in a little reality. My answer is to adjust your expectations. You can adjust them without assassinating them. It will take some work, but it’s possible, and it’s a whole lot better for your mental health, and for the mental health of the people you’ll be around.

You may be aware that Debbie (my wife) and I are in a season of adjustment right now. After 45 years of “located ministry experience” (read “I’ve been employed by churches all my adult life”), I’m starting a Pastoral Counseling practice. We moved from Northeast Iowa to Central Oklahoma for me to do this. I gave up the security of a steady income to do it, along with a few other personal comforts, like some wonderful friends. This is fine, because I think I’m ready to make this transition in my ministry career. Counseling is in my sweet-spot, and God has given me gifts for it. I think the future will be outstanding. But right now, I have a tiny fraction of the income we had four months ago, and I don’t see things getting fabulously different by Christmas.

What this means is that we have a dramatically adjusted Christmas gift budget this year. As a recovering materialist and grandfather, this is a really difficult adjustment of expectations. I love seeing my grandkids’ faces when they open a cool present I’ve given them. I love seeing a similar face on my grown daughters and their husbands, too. Not to mention how I love seeing it on Debbie’s face. “A power drill?! How did you know?!”

On the way to figuring out these adjusted expectations, I’ll have to (and you’ll have to do the same thing with yours) express my expectations. I’ll have to tell my family and friends about my adjusted expectations. This isn’t always easy. It’s not for me, anyway.

There are a a couple of ways to do this. Immature people get sad and victim-ish, and tell their friends and families how awful it is that life (or God, or their boss, or their ex, or whomever) has dealt them this cruel hand. Essentially, the message is less, “Here’s my adjusted expectations,” and more, “Don’t you feel sorry for me and my horrible life!?”

More mature people will share that they want to thank their family and friends for giving them grace through a time when resources are small and just aren’t meeting demands. These mature people will probably also share that they’re not really looking for or expecting gifts from others. Instead, they’ll look for ways to give gifts that either cost little or nothing, but convey a sentiment of love and blessing. You know, like in a Hallmark movie.

The idea is to scale it back to a realistic level for Christmas, not to destroy the holiday.

Here’s another big thing about adjusting expectations. Remember the last time you had reduced or adjusted expectations enforced on you? It was great, wasn’t it? It wasn’t for me. It isn’t for most of the people I know. Especially if they’re young. So do what you can to keep from enforcing your downward-adjusted expectations on others. Especially your kids.

There’s no perfect way to do this. Every family’s different, and every kid has their own temperament and personality. But here’s an idea that has some potential: talk about it before you drop the bomb. Bombs are bad enough when you talk about them before you drop them, but if you just drop them without any discussion or dialogue they’re even more potentially explosive.

Here’s how I suggest you do this talking thing. First of all, turn off the TV and put all the video games and other electronic devices on pause. Sit facing each other. The kitchen or dinning table is a good place, but you can do it in the living room, too. I wouldn’t do it in a restaurant. Too much noise and way too public, in case there are some emotional expressions. Just make sure you get to make eye contact easily in a safe environment.

Then gently tell your kids the story of why expectations have to be adjusted this year. Use vocabulary that they will understand. Don’t give them more than they need to know about the entire back-story, but they need to know the story. They’ve got to have something to contextualize the new and adjusted expectations. Apologize if you feel you should, but be careful not to catastrophize (which is to dwell on the horrible side of the situation).

Offer what you feel you want to do with this opportunity to approach Christmas in a different way. Lead the way with your own attitude. You don’t have to be Pollyanna, and pretend that this is no biggie. It might be a biggie. Don’t lie to your kids. Or to yourself, for that matter. Just remember that one mega-truth in life is that what you do about what happens to you is more important than what happens to you.

Ask God to give you wisdom to do this thing well before you call the meeting, and then step into it, trusting that He will do this for you. He’s promised that He wants to make you wise. Take a look at Jame 1:5

There’s a whole horizon of non-material, non-financial expectations that probably need to be adjusted. I know it sounds simplistic, but I believe this same basic plan works for them, too. Talk about them. Share what you’re thinking and feeling with your spouse and family. Take the risk to be open and non-judgmental. Pray that same prayer for wisdom, and them talk about it.

You don’t have to be the victim of unmet expectations. But you will be unless you take measures to address and adjust them down to a more reasonable level. I know. This sucks. Sorry. We’ll all get over it, though. And who knows? We might just get back to the deeper meaning of the season.

From → Marriage, Parenting

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