The main character in the Oscar-winning film Parasite says something along the lines that if you don’t have plans, nothing can go wrong (suggesting, in line with the movie’s theme, that trying to climb the American ladder might not be the best idea). Similarly, Timothy Keller notes that we need to be careful with expectations, because where there are expectations, there can be disappointment. But does that mean we shouldn’t have hope? Morgan Freeman does say in The Shawshank Redemption that “hope is a dangerous thing.”
Fire is dangerous but keeps us warm. The key is that we shouldn’t play with fire. Likewise, we shouldn’t play with hope, for when we’re careless, we start calling “hope” what is actually an “expectation,” something that can incubate an entitlement spirit and leave us vulnerable to boredom and disappointment.
(Please note that the words “hope” and “expectation” can be used interchangeably, causing confusion: someone could use the term “expectation” and be talking about “hope,” as someone could use the word “hope” and be talking about an “expectation.” The distinction between heart dispositions outlined in this paper is not meant to suggest the problem can be identified through terminology.)
If there’s nothing to look forward to, it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. But though they can both be reasons for living, there’s a difference between having a big guiding life goal and making plans every day for the afternoon to avoid having nothing to do (this point is expanded on in “On Materialism, Purpose, and Discernment,” if you’re interested). Taking the time to design a single fire with chopped wood and a circle of stones that will burn through the night is much safer than quickly throwing together twigs for a small blaze that you’ll have to relight every hour. It’s better to design a well-built fire than to keep throwing something new together, taking a risk each time. And the more fires you wake up to build, the more tired you’ll feel, increasing the likelihood of sloppiness and danger.
If our hope and meaning in life is to be a great athlete, we can’t get there if we don’t each morning get out of bed with the purpose and plan of taking a shower and eating breakfast. But if we don’t have hope, it won’t be long before getting out of bed to take a shower feels empty. Additionally, expectations can feel like hopes, and the more expectations we have, the more likely we are to confuse having expectations with having hopes, making us vulnerable to disappointment and disillusionment.
Hopes are dangerous, but not as dangerous as expectations. Hopes provide both meaning and purpose, while expectation only provides purpose (hope/meaning with purpose is macro while only expectation/purpose is micro). Expectation feels like meaning until the expectation is fulfilled and you go on that date or buy that new car, for example, after which you go back to being bored. Both require plans — it’s impossible to live without them — but plans based on hopes versus based on expectations can influence the heart differently.
Is looking forward to a movie date on Friday a hope or an expectation? There’s a gray zone between the two — you can go on dates hoping to help your relationship or expecting to be treated like a king — and it’s often hard to tell the difference. But here’s a practical test: how often do you get bored? If you get bored often, you might be living your life more based on expectation than on hope. And if you’re going to risk disappointment, you ought to get more bang for your buck and hope more than expect.
Try to have fewer expectations than hopes. Mess with fire as little as you can. Avoid plans when they’re not necessary (which only you can judge). Don’t be someone who is unhappy if you have nothing to look forward to, for then you are someone always living in the future, and when the future becomes the present, you’ll be living out of that too.
If you’re always in the future, you’re always out of your life. But doesn’t hope put you in the future too? Kind of, but hope also gives you something to do now for the future, while expectation doesn’t give you something to do until later in the future.
If you hope to be a great athlete, you have training you can do now, but if you’re looking forward to going to the movies later, there’s nothing for you to do until this evening. In hope, the present and future blend together; in expectation, the present and future are divided.
Expectation can make you much less present than does hope. In expectation, the future is found out of the present (in getting to this evening, etc.), while in hope, the future is found in the present (in what you do now to make that hope come to pass). Again, this is why boredom is a good test: if you have nothing to do now or don’t see significance in anything you could do, you probably need more hope.
Only you can know if you’re living for expectations or hopes, so ask yourself regularly what’s up, and play with fire as little as you can but enough to stay warm. We all need hope but not expectations.
Instead of needing plans and expectations to know what to do with yourself, try to be someone who can improvise, adapt, and “go with the flow,” and try to cultivate a spirit of thanksgiving for however the day might end up. Don’t be passive, but also don’t try to completely control your days (controlling seems harder, but it can actually be easier and take less discipline than learning to adapt). Instead, try to be open to what each day may bring and for finding ways you can make your days work toward your hopes.
You won’t be disappointed.