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What’s Better? Anticipation or the Real Thing?

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, March 9, 2010

I read an opinion piece in USA Today that got me thinking: “We expect too much of our presidents” by William Choslovsky. I’m not so interested in the main point of the column, which is a defense of President Obama on the basis that our expectations for him were unrealistically high. (I do have to wonder, though, why presidential candidates of all stripes continue to promise the moon, even when they know they can only deliver green cheese. And I do wonder, even more, why we voters believe their promises, even when we should know better. But I’ll save these wonderings for another blog post.)

What I found most fascinating in Choslovsky’s piece was one sentence, a rhetorical flourish that reflects curious perspective on life. In context, the author is noting that Barack Obama was once as popular as a rock star. But, Choslovsky implies, he’s not so favored anymore. So what happened? Here’s Choslovsky’s answer:

What happened is he won, and Candidate Obama became President Obama. And as with most things in life, the anticipation was better than the real thing.

I was struck by the second sentence: “And as with most things in life, the anticipation was better than the real thing.”

Is this true? In most of life, do our expectations exceed reality? Is life truly a long line of disappointments?

I’ve been sorting through my life, trying to remember when anticipation was better than the real thing. There have been times when this was true. I’ll never forget my first visit to Plymouth Rock. I was expecting to see a rock big enough for a ship full of pilgrims to gather upon it for a prayer meeting.  In fact, Plymouth Rock was about as big as an oversized bean bag chair. For me, the anticipation of Plymouth Rock was better than the real thing. (The only thing amazing about it was the fact that the pilgrims managed to land in 1620 on a rock that had 1620 carved into its side. Yes, I am aware that what’s left of the rock is much less than the original, and that a good part of it lies beneath the sand, and that the 1620 was probably not there when the pilgrims landed.)

There have also been times when a highly anticipated experience began as much less than I had hoped.  I anticipated college to be a blast, but found myself terribly homesick in my first few months. I thought my marriage to Linda would be easy, but in fact we got off to a rocky start. I expected parenthood to be hard work, but had no idea just how hard it would really be.

You might say that, for me, in the case of college, marriage, and parenthood, anticipation was better than the real thing. But this would be utterly wrong. Yes, my first few months of college were difficult, but I ended up having a fantastic experience. Linda and I had a difficult time in the beginning of our marriage, but now, after 25 years, what I’ve experienced is immeasurably better than what I expected. And, yes, parenthood has been harder than I once realized. But the joys of parenting far, far outweigh the unanticipated challenges.

Many things in life have certainly been different from what I had anticipated. And many things have turned out to be harder than what I had expected. But, unless my memory has blotted out the bad stuff, I can honestly say that, for the most part, the real thing has been better than my anticipation. It may be true, however, that the best things in life often start out falling short of expectations, only to exceed them later on.

So what do you think? Would you agree that anticipation usually trumps reality? Or is it the other way around? Does life generally disappoint you? Or does it surprise you with unexpected grace? What in life has been for you like Plymouth Rock was for me? What in life has turned out to be much better than you thought?

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3 Responses to “What’s Better? Anticipation or the Real Thing?”

  1. Thomas Buck Says:
    March 9th, 2010 at 4:29 am

    Usually life is better than I expect. “Surprising me with unexpected grace” is a good way to put it. As time goes by, it seems I’m more aware of God active in my life. He’s an amazing Lord, with lots of surprises.

    Of course, as you say, there are disappointments. Restaurants or movies everyone raves about, but when I experience them, I can’t understand what the hubbub was about.

    There have been vacation disappointments, too, like yours at Plymouth rock, but then there was Niagara Falls, which I could visit every day if possible. And the first time I saw the Rockies as my family and I approached Denver by car from the East. The Grand Canyon view from an airliner.
    And right “outside my front door”, Lake Superior. You can’t see the other side from here!

    Do you think that as a people, we’re kind of like the ancient Israelites, and really want a king? It’s easier to give credit to or blame a single person, as opposed to a legislative body or panel of judges.

  2. Ray Fowler Says:
    March 9th, 2010 at 6:24 am

    I am reminded of Pascal’s words, “We never seek things for themselves, but for the search.” (Pensees, Misery of Man without God, 135) There is something about the thrill of the hunt that appeals to human nature, often more so than the attainment of the goal.

  3. Barb Says:
    March 9th, 2010 at 10:31 am

    “Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best—” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.


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