The small, seemingly inconsequential expectations we set for ourselves, others, and our environment are, more often than not, destined not to be met. Yet, when we make them almost without thinking, how can we escape the hurt our missed expectations cause?
I would like to relate a personal anecdote of how three simple words, heard at the right moment, forever reshaped how I react to the world around me.
My wife and I were returning from a short vacation. During our absence, we had left our home and our cat in the care of a relative. We returned to find the house was intact. The cat, fed. But the instructions I had left did not provide guidance on when to let the cat out. The instructions also did not say the litter box should be cleaned.
The litter wasn’t cleaned. And the cat never let out. I was upset.
I was upset that the litter box had not been cleaned for almost a week. I was upset that our cat had no choice but to use the filthy litter box. And I was upset that the person we had entrusted with the care of our beloved animal had not noticed the problem.
“He should have known.”
That’s what I felt. And that is what I repeatedly vented to my wife. It was in response to my frustration that she uttered the words that forever altered the lens through which I viewed life.
“Should doesn’t matter.”
Those words lifted a burden from my shoulders that I didn’t even realize I was carrying.
My frustration, my suffering in that moment was caused only by my clinging to what “should have” been. There was no external cause. I was holding on to a vision of the present that did not exist and would not exist no matter how frustrated I felt. The clinging I felt was so much a part of me that only in the absence of such clinging I became aware that it was ever there at all.
Relief from suffering required only one thing: to let go.
I began to see how my sense of expectation permeated my everyday experience. “They should have held the door open.” “They shouldn’t have cut me off in traffic.” “They should not have taken the last cup of coffee.” “I shouldn’t have said that.”
Well, that’s not what happened.
So, how can we escape the suffering these little bits of grasping and attachment cause? Simply being mindful that they exist in the first place. Maintaining a vigilance for the phrase “should have,” a desire for things to be different than they really are at this moment, is the first step of letting go of these non-realities. It is then that we can meet what is face to face and truly live in the present.