Don’t expect anything this semester
Matthew Williams | Tuesday, August 22, 2017
Expect nothing and you will enjoy everything. This sentence seems contradictory, but the idea it captures is one of the most meaningful nuggets of wisdom I’ve mined from my time at Notre Dame. It has the power to make the ordinary extraordinary, to make every day spectacular from the moment you hop out of bed, and to make life monumentally more joyful. To explain how I need to note a few things first. Let’s start with our minds.
A human brain is perhaps the best biological supercomputer on the planet. Amidst its long list of accolades is the sensible ability to simplify. In other words, our brains are great at taking the extremely complex, diverse and unpredictable world, and projecting it onto our mind’s eye in a simpler, more uniform and more stable format.
If our brains didn’t reduce life’s complexity in this way, we’d have a hard time making it out the door each morning. The world is just too complicated to completely comprehend and still continue to function. But we get by because our brains are great at minimizing distractions; showing us only the details they deem we’ll need to navigate through each day and attempting to block out the rest.
Put another way, life is like an extremely busy retail website on Black Friday, and our brains are like pop-up blockers that help us focus, for the most part, on what we’re actually looking for. But impeding interruptions isn’t the only way our brains make life simpler. They also form expectations, which function like a web browser’s autofill feature.
Just like a browser predicts what we’re going to type, remembers our passwords and suggests the pages we frequently visit, our brains reduce uncertainty by forming expectations about what future situations will hold. Then, we can interact with these familiar and comfortable expectations, rather than having to figure things out each time on the fly.
Think about it. We generate expectations for almost everything, and when we don’t know what to expect from something, it tends to terrify us. Getting in the car and driving somewhere doesn’t make us uncomfortable because we expect other drivers to stop at red lights, use their turn signals, and stay in their lanes. When they don’t, our expectations aren’t met and driving becomes much more difficult and sometimes frightening.
In much the same way, something like a first date is bound to give us butterflies. It’s full of uncertainty, and we rarely know what to expect — which is why first dates usually make us more nervous than our daily commute. But there’s a paradox in our brain’s predictive tendency, because which situation is more meaningful: driving along a familiar road or going on a first date with someone you barely know?
While expectations enable our minds to deal with complexity, they also limit our capacity for finding joy in everything we do. They scare off serendipity and create a foretold mold that reality can never completely fill. In “The Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy presents this paradox to us by explaining why we’ll never be able to gaze at the Grand Canyon and see it in all its grandeur; the way that Garcia Lopez de Cardenas did when he first discovered it.
Percy suggests that our minds won’t be able to fully appreciate the beauty before us, because we’ve already built up expectations about what the canyon should be. Consequently, the sightseer who’s read brochures and travel blogs won’t measure her satisfaction by how wonderful the canyon really is, but by the degree to which it conforms to her preformed expectations.
All this goes to say that we’ll never fully enjoy anything if we expect something from it, because our ability to absorb the awe of what’s actually happening around us will be limited by what we expected to happen in its place. For example, consider a rainy Monday morning. If you expect a sunny day, it’s easy to become disappointed when you peer out a window and see gloomy grey skies instead.
On the contrary, if you expect nothing from that Monday, you’ll jump out of bed and find many things to appreciate. You’ve got the fresh air that follows a storm to breathe, lots of great friends to see, and comfortable clothes to wear. These things are just a morsel of the treasure that that rainy Monday contains, but they’ve already made it a spectacular morning full of joy and gratitude.
The trick is that, by expecting nothing to be given to us, everything we receive becomes a gift. It isn’t always easy to do, because our brains will try to fight us along the way, but if we can eliminate expectation this semester, we’ll also find it possible to enjoy everything.
The key is keeping a keen eye out for joy; appreciating everything that life sends our way; and if things get especially challenging, taking solace in the simple fact that we get to spend another day studying what we love, surrounded by people who love us, at the greatest university on Earth. When we know where to look, happiness isn’t hard to find.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.