I love pessimism. It’s so relaxing. So non-threatening. It says: Don’t even try. Whereas optimism requires such work. You have to hope. You have to dream, preferably big. You have to let a smile be your umbrella on a rainy, rainy day. Because, after all, the sun’ll come out tomorrow.
Although I’ve never read it, I gather that the point of the bestselling book The Secret is that if you think positive thoughts about something – if you expect the best – then it will, like magic, happen. I am told that one example in the book concerns parking spaces. All you have to do, promises the author, is imagine the perfect parking place being open to you, and there it will be. Right in front of the library. The Post Office. Carnegie Hall.
The pessimist in me says, wait a minute. What if sixteen firm believers in The Secret are all approaching the same destination, famous for its lack of parking spaces, each driver dead certain that there will be a place for him, for her? Is it possible that sixteen spaces will suddenly open up? Or even six? Or one? Somehow, I don’t think so.
Instead, I believe in low expectations. Set your sights low, and you’re bound to be pleased at least some of the time. (I’m happy to find a parking place somewhere down the block.) Tell yourself, entering a new restaurant, “I’ll bet the service is awful here,” and you’ll be pleased – nay, thrilled! – when a server brings you your very own napkin and water. Go into the theater expecting to be disappointed by Steve Carell’s new movie and you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you actually laugh – or, okay, chuckle quietly to yourself – at that one place where nobody else is laughing but you can see the humor in the situation, even if you’re probably not supposed to.
See how it works? If you go to the restaurant expecting a hot towel to wipe your hands and all you get is a paper towel, you’re bound to be disappointed. But if they actually give you a hot towel – like at my favorite Indian restaurant in Madison, or on an Air France flight – you’ll sink into your chair in delight. If you’re fool enough to go to a Steve Carell movie expecting to laugh your socks off, well, they’re your socks. I say stick to “The Office,” and even then, don’t expect a laugh riot. They’ve had stellar episodes, but not every week.
One easy way to set your sights low, and then be happily astonished, is to believe common myths. I’m thinking especially about Things Everybody Knows Are True About Other Countries. Take France. Everybody knows the French, every one of them, are rude and hate Americans. So when my daughter and I went to Paris, our expectations were dismally low. We did our best not to do the things we knew really set the French off – we didn’t wear track suits (never owned any), and tried our best to speak the language, mangled as it was.
And you know what? They were all, every single one we encountered, as nice as pie. As nice as a croissant au chocolat. One day when I forgot how to count in francs (this was before the much simpler Euro), I just opened up my wallet to a shopkeeper, who laughed her beautiful laugh, cried, “Oo la la!” and warned me about doing that with anybody else. I was charmed.
Same with Venice. I swear, every time I told someone here we were honeymooning in Venice, they warned me, “Be careful; I hear the canals smell terrible.” Well, I’m sure Lake Michigan smells terrible if you get too close to a fish kill, but you know what? Venice smelled just fine, and it was gorgeous, too. Oh, and the people were friendly, though I only knew three words of Italian: Scusi, gracie, and gelato. Another pleasant surprise.
There are so many things we can have low expectations about, and then be gratified when it turns out better than imagined. (When it turns out just as bad as you predicted, you can savor the pleasure of saying, “I told you so.”) A dreaded holiday meal can turn out to be delicious, enjoyable, and emotionally warm. A community theater production of your hundredth viewing of “The Fiddler on the Roof” can prove to be both charmingly staged and unexpectedly moving. (Especially if you’d forgotten that Tevye did speak to his third daughter, who married the enemy.) A required class with a dry professor can suddenly catch fire when you begin studying that teacher’s favorite Tolstoy story.
How much better than if you had gone into these experiences expecting perfection. “This is going to be the best Christmas ever!” “I can’t wait to see ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ again!” “I’ll bet English 101 will be the class I tell my grandchildren about!” It’s one thing to look forward to an experience, but another thing altogether to count on it being something you’ll write about in your diary on a page decorated with stars.
You’re probably expecting me to close this meditation on low expectations with a great story about that one time when I had set my sights really low and it turned out to be just wonderful, inspiring, the best time of my life. But that’s my point. You shouldn’t expect that kind of thing. If it turns out well, good for you. If not, well, so much the better that you weren’t expecting the moon. Sometimes one little star is all we get, and it’s enough to read our fortunes by.