"Evidently she was always going to understand; she was always going to say the right thing. The discovery made the cup of his bliss overflow."
--The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Newton Archer and May Welland are engaged and have made the official announcement. Much to Newland's chagrin, it was forced a bit by the dark and mysterious Countess Olenska's questionable return to society.
If I had to live in the society Wharton so sharply describes, I believe I might poke my eyes out with my own dance card. But, I digress. We'll discuss this treacherous society later. For now, I'd like to talk about another danger:
The danger of sublime expectations.
The gloss on May Welland will fade, but not because she suddenly stops saying the right thing. It is, in fact, because she always does. In the beginning Newton follows the dance of the happily betrothed and sees only beauty in his blushing gal and her sweet submission.
This doesn't last. Newton yearns for spark, he craves imperfection, a rough edge to snag on. And we turn the pages wondering if he ever will.
All of us have entered a relationship with high expectations. We enter lots of things with expectations: marriage, parenthood, restaurants, movies, frozen yogurt bars. We have our minds set in one direction, our perceived notion of how exactly this is all going to play out. And when those expectations are suddenly unmet, the deflation can be painful.
True, the disagreement isn't that bad, the kids aren't that horrible, the food isn't that awful; it's just that we were expecting something. . . different. We were expecting bliss and we just got average.
How do we fix that? Do we sally forth into life with a chip on our shoulder and an expectation for everything to be screwed up, lame, and worthless? I don't know that Newland would be any happier in this moment if he shook himself out of the bliss and decided to approach marriage with dread and sorrow.
No, as Donne would say, we must seek the "via media." There is a peaceful middle ground. I'm not saying I've found it, I just know it is out there. I believe we have to give life a chance to get lived. We have to give people a chance to get known. I once had someone I know, trust, and admire give me a very clear description of an administrator I was going to be working with. "He won't support you. He is so hard to work with. Avoid him." I was adequately warned. Fast forward a few months, and this guy was my favorite Assistant Principal. He became my go-to man when I needed back up with a student. He was supportive, loyal, and consistent.
That experience has taught me that every moment and experience is valid for each person having it. . . but that doesn't mean it is going to be the same for me. I don't undermine that my friend had a difficult experience with this man. But, I also recognize that people change. Each person has lenses through which they see things. Life carries a unique prescription for all.
Now, back to "bliss." Newland is setting himself up for sorrow here. Of course he should look at his future bride with hope and joy. We all set out that way the day we say those sacred vows, have that child, or start that new job. But, if the expectation is sublime perfection, then we are dooming everyone to frustration.
Therefore, what do we expect? We expect them. We expect to love this person or child or moment to the very best of our ability. We expect them to learn and laugh and grow with us. We expect frustration and enlightenment.
We expect humanity.
And in that humanity, we can find bliss. I disagree with the cliched memes that argue that we can only be happy if we want what we get. Bliss comes when we get what we want and we want what we get.
If what we want is a flawed human experience we can love with our entire, flawed heart, then our slightly cracked cups will overflow as much as Newland's did--if not just a little bit more.