Last night, I went to my local CVS to buy some stuff in the late evening. It was oppressively muggy outside – still nearly 90 degrees well past dusk – and inside the workers looked like they were ready to get out of there. One was vacuuming. The other stood behind the counter listlessly. The place was almost empty. And, yet, as I finished the self checkout, the one slumped over the vacuum cleaner put on her brightest smile and called out, “Have an awesome night!”
“You do the same,” I replied reflexively.
The tendency to wish people a good and sometimes “awesome” day is a uniquely American habit. You won’t hear that in Spain or England or the Dominican Republic or just about anywhere else, except in industries (like hospitality) that cater heavily to American tourists. I’ve always found it peculiar even as I’ve partaken in it. Sure, it’s partly mindless, just a thing we say because we hear other people say it. But it’s also admirable, really, and indicative of the beautiful parts of the American ethos: hope and the ability to dream big. Of course we’d make it part of our daily exchanges, this exhortation to go out and live your best life. That’s what we do. We push westward. We build companies. We scale mountains. We have awesome days.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about the dark side of big expectations. I’ve had big expectations all my life, and I’ve been incredibly blessed in meeting most of them. Still, much of my time has been spent focusing on the ones I’ve yet to meet, or, even worse, the ones I have met but which have turned out not to be as cool as I’d hoped they’d be. Expectations are a step away from the present moment, and the present moment is the only one in which we can be truly happy, because it’s the only one we have.
What happens in a culture in which we think we’re supposed to run around having awesome days and nights all the time? It’s possible that we often find ourselves coming up short. After all, how often are days truly awesome? And so we find ways to numb the pain of that – working too much, or watching TV or dulling ourselves in other ways. Add the modern-day ease of comparison – like social media that reminds us how awesome everyone else’s life supposedly is (known as the “highlight reel” phenomenon. A post for another day) – and it’s a recipe for feeling like we’re coming up short against all the awesomeness around us.
Does that mean we should change our greeting? No, of course not. I can’t see myself telling the tired-looking clerk at CVS, “I hope you’re content in this moment,” by way of goodbye. Of course I want her to aim high and hope for awesome nights every night. But, for me, I want to let go of expectations of greatness.
Did I go on to have an amazing night after the clerk wished it for me? Not really. It was fairly run of the mill. I went home, watched some TV with the kids, read part of a friend’s manuscript and wrote a thousand words on my work-in-progress. Awesome? Probably not. But it was good enough for me.