Several years ago as I was standing in line for a rental car, I heard the agent tell the person in front of me, “You’ll be able to find every kind of restaurant here that you can imagine.”
The rental car desk was in the airport in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
There are many things to appreciate about my hometown, but I can’t agree with the rental-car agent. Unless you’re looking for really good chicken-fried steak, BBQ, or Tex-Mex, there are limits in Tulsa’s restaurant options.
That experience reminds me how often a lack of imagination can limit us. I’m also reminded of that each time I hear someone say, “I could never imagine. . . .”
So what limits our imaginations? I think expectations may be one of those things.
Expectations can be positive. They can spur us to strive for excellence or inspire us to continue to grow and discover who we are.
But expectations also can have negative effects. They can diminish our sense of self-worth or belonging. They can make us feel less worthy, less capable, less adequate because who we are or what we do seems to fall short of what’s expected.
The Canadian band Barenaked Ladies lament such expectations in their song What a Good Boy:
When I was born, they looked at me and said,
“What a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy.”
When you were born, they looked at you and said,
“What a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl.”
We’ve got these chains hanging round our necks.
People want to strangle us with them before we take our first breath.
When we feel strangled by expectations, we can begin to doubt ourselves. What if I’m not a smart girl? What if I’m not a strong boy? And, even worse, we can find ourselves wondering: If I don’t measure up, will they still like me, still think well of me, still accept me, still love me? We can struggle to imagine ourselves in positive ways.
Such expectations also can put cracks in our relationships with others. When we feel strangled by others’ expectations, we may try to be someone other than we really are—but we do so at the cost of an authentic relationship. Or we may resort to an ultimatum--If you can’t accept me as I am, then I’ll just walk away—leaving us with a broken relationship.
And think about the expectations we often have of others. A good friend of mine who’s been in a twelve-step program for a number of years likes to say, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” I think it’s safe to add that expectations also are often disappointments waiting to happen. Both can limit our ability to imagine others differently.
I believe that setting aside the expectations we have—of ourselves and of others—can help us imagine how things might be different than they are right now. It can help us dare to imagine futures that are bigger and brighter, as well as riskier and more rewarding. It can liberate us from chains that threaten to strangle us and open us to the gift of imagination that God offers.