A couple of months ago there was a really funny little article in The Economist about unrealistic expectations. It seems that many French city folks have an idealistic vision of country life, “the land,” and “a bucolic existence in la France profonde,” according to the article. Although three quarters of the French population live in cities, especially since the pandemic began, more and more of those with the necessary means, are searching for quiet villages and out of the way cottages to which they can retreat.
And, they are finding such country places. Unfortunately, their expectations of country life are at odds with the reality.
The Economist reported that the owner of a second home on the Ile d’Oleron, just off the west coast, brought a suit against a rooster who, each morning, crowed too early for his liking. The court ruled in favor of the chicken. In another corner of the country, a transplanted resident sued a farmer whose gaggle of ducks and geese squawked too loudly. And in the village of Foix, near the Pyrenees, a new home owner brought an official complaint against the village because the church’s bells were a nuisance to his sense of peace and quiet. These and other bizarre reactions led a French legislator to introduce a bill to protect the “sensory heritage” of rural France, “the crowing of the cockerel, the noise of the cicadas, the odor of manure.” (The Economist, June 20, 2020, p. 43).
I spent my first seventeen years of life in the country and, periodically have lived there from time to time. Chickens, cattle, horses and pigs were never far away. Probably my strongest olfactory memory is of the gorgeous sweet smell that rose from the Horse and Mule feed when, each day, I opened the enormous metal barrel in which it was stored in the barn to feed the livestock down back.
Horses smell different from cows and both smell better than a pig sty. Chicken clatter incessantly, but fresh eggs are worth the trouble. And there’s nothing in the world for rousing you for a new day like nature’s alarm clock, the rooster. As a young pastor in the black dirt farming region of Central Texas, the fields gave off the most amazing loamy aromas in early spring as the earth warmed, our church bells rang regularly every day, and I still miss the cooing of the doves on a summer morning.
So why is my experience of the same realities so different from another’s? It all has to do with expectations.
Managing our expectations is one of the essential skills for finding joy and equanimity in life.
One of my favorite people in the whole world was Pauline Farrow. Pauline has long since joined the heavenly host of witnesses. When I was her pastor in the early 1980s, and she was then in her mid-eighties, she was my primary go-to source for wisdom in the village I served as pastor. There’s no way to count how many late afternoons we spent drinking sweet tea sitting on her screened-in back porch or in her kitchen or even (when she was ill) in her bedroom talking and sometimes just sitting for long stretches of time not talking. She was that kind of friend, the kind you don’t have to talk with to feel completely at ease.
Old age caught Pauline by surprise. Well, the maladies of old age caught her by surprise.
She told me once that until she was eighty she never remembered a sick day in her whole life. Then she passed eighty. And then she started noticing how her remarkably capable and reliable body began to fail her.
None of this is unusual, of course. What was unusual, however, was her response.
It took a little while, but, after a couple of bouts with aches and pains and restless leg syndrome that kept her awake at night, and finding herself susceptible suddenly to various bugs that used to pass her by, she realized something in her misery. Her body finally had begun to capitulate to the ordinary ravages of mortality. She was suffering the common fate of all of us, if we live long enough.
At first, a little miserable, but gradually over time, Pauline returned to her regular self. Oh, she’d mention to me that something new hurt, then she’d just go on with her story. She knew the history of the whole region as only a beloved “outsider” could (she wasn’t a native to our village, having only lived there for seventy years). She also knew everything that currently happened in our village, and kept me informed. We held to a common belief: “It isn’t gossip if it’s a prayer concern.” And until I left that country parish, I found her to be one of my two or three favorite friends. I never forgot what she taught me through her example.
Her gift was to be able to adjust her expectations to fit realities. Pauline Farrow, the first woman to become an elder in her entire presbytery, the most indomitable and gracious exemplar of the virtues of Presbyterian women, was my first Zen Master. She showed me that pain, per se, doesn’t make us miserable; only our perception of pain can do that.
A muscle ache in my calves because I’ve successfully increased my biking distance and speed is pain, but I greet it like a warrior with a new battle scar. A similar pain in my back from lifting a box of books may, however, leave me annoyed. The pain isn’t the point. We make pain into suffering because of the way we interpret it.
So it goes.
In my head I’m thirty-two years old.
My body disagrees with my head.
My body knows that the autoimmune disease I’ve had all my life is more brittle now than it was in the past, and Debbie (as she did just a few minutes ago) has to remind me that I can’t work outside in the heat of the day anymore or I’ll get a cascade of mast cells that can throw me into anaphylaxis. Okay. My body knows that on this side of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary emboli I have to take certain medications and precautions. It’s a necessary nuisance. Okay.
I’m learning that listening to my body is wise. I can do most things at sixty-six that I did at thirty-two years old, if I prepare well and give myself time to recover. That’s the reality, and it will continue to change as long as I have the benefit of living.
New realities require adjustments of expectations. And living with joy at any age or in any place requires the management of expectations.
Quite often when Jesus said something or did something there was no need for a dramatic swell of sacred music in the soundtrack. He cussed at a fig tree one day because it didn’t have figs and he was hungry. But then he adjusted his expectations and said, “somebody ought to trench that thing, pile on the manure, make sure it gets sufficient water, and check back next year. If figs come. Well and good. If they don’t, chop that tree down and plant a new one.”
Reality is for real. Joy and equanimity lie in coming to terms with that fact.