This time last year, I had no idea where I would be this year.
I don’t mean that in a global, in-2020-there-was-a-pandemic sense—I mean that in December 2019, I’d applied for a scholarship I had no expectation of getting at a grad school that seemed out of reach, I was planning a move to a second small Midwestern town because life in the first Midwestern town had been little more than a series of catastrophes, and I had just hit a deer on the highway and totaled my car.
Needless to say, from there things did not calm down much. My move to the new town was immediately followed by a global pandemic, and between now and then I got the scholarship, planned an intercontinental move, lost my passport, had housing situation after housing situation fall through, and finally by hook or by crook ended up in St Andrews, Scotland, from where I’m not going to be able to make it back home for Christmas.
But to be totally honest with you, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more emotionally stable. 2020 taught me something that I think at any other time it would have taken me ten years to learn—the grace of living with no expectations.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve never been a low-expectations girl. Ever since I first came across it, British writer G.K. Chesterton’s epigram “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised” has rubbed me the wrong way. How could we really live without expectations? Shouldn’t our expectations be high? My absolute favorite (and in fact default) state of being is anticipation. I often, like most people, enjoy the anticipation of an event more than the actual event. One time when I was a little kid I got so excited about summer camp that I threw up and couldn’t go to summer camp. I am an excited person.
But as this year wore on, I realized something had changed about my circumstances in life: I really didn’t know what I was looking forward to. I didn’t know if I wanted to leave my beloved friends and move to Scotland, and I didn’t know if I was going to. I didn’t know whether this small Midwestern town I was currently living in would be my home for the next five years, or just a great six months of memories. Not only did I really, truly not know what was going to happen—I also didn’t know what I even wanted. Expert though I am at building dream-castles, I couldn’t build with absolutely no material.
It was around this time that a friend of mine told me about another friend’s favorite saying: “No expectations.” The phrase can be applied in many different contexts, but I seized upon it as descriptive of my life at the moment. As coronavirus descended upon the United States and travel plans became even more uncertain, I began to live a life of no expectations. When I went to bed at night, I would plan the next day, and no more. When people asked me what I’d be doing in a month, or a year, or two years, I’d tell them that I didn’t know. When I found myself wondering about my future, I stopped. I didn’t have low expectations—I wasn’t looking forward to the future and assuming the worst—I had no expectations. I didn’t come up with theories about what would happen next.
Instead, I planted a garden. I looked forward to seeing the carrot leaves above the ground. I weeded and dug in the soil and bought tomato cages and waited for the day I could harvest basil. I planned a friend’s birthday party and looked forward to seeing the surprise on his face. I went on a camping trip with friends and anticipated waking up in the morning to eat bacon. I bought a bottle of wine and looked forward to sharing it with my neighbors that evening.
For me, having no expectations didn’t mean not looking forward to things—it just meant looking forward to the small blessings of life rather than making a grand plan. And when those things happened—the camping and the birthday party and the wine night and the garden tomatoes with basil—I really, really appreciated them, because I wasn’t already halfway in the future. I wasn’t thinking about where I’d be next month or next year. I just was where I was.
Of course, it’s a very simple lesson. “Live in the moment” isn’t exactly revolutionary. But it’s a lesson I needed to learn, and it carried me through 2020. Among those daily to-do lists and quick catch-ups with friends and birthday parties and wine nights, I eventually made my way to where I barely dreamed I would be this time next year. And I don’t take any of it for granted, because I know it wasn’t guaranteed—it couldn’t have been expected. Not knowing whether I’d get anything that I now have—a beautiful apartment, the kitten purring in my lap, the passport that is now safely hidden away—means that I appreciate it all so much more. It’s all a gift, and I’m so thankful for it.
I have been gloriously surprised.