“Why do you do what you do?” This question is taken from a book called “Spirituality for Dummies,” and I did not come across it organically but was rather fed the question by my professor. She asked for answers from the class once we had finished thinking about our personal responses to the question, and someone said something to the effect of “I’d like to be fulfilled in my life.”
In a strange and rare moment of clarity, I realized that fulfillment is no longer a goal of mine.
This sounds sort of sad or even killjoy-ish to say at first. Perhaps even attention-seekingly so, a way for me to play either the hippie who wants to ride the wave and be super-chill or the nihilist who’d rather stick it to the man than engage with the responsibility of organizing his priorities. I don’t think it’s either one of these things — I think it’s better and more simple than that, and that it all begins with a reorientation of expectations.
I write now from my personal experience, which I understand is not necessarily an accurate gauge of my generation’s experience. I hope some people can relate. I grew up believing that the purpose of life was to be fulfilled in multiple ways. Romance, work and success would all answer some kind of question I had, they’d fully scratch some kind of perpetual itch. I’m not sure if those beliefs were taught explicitly or if they were always implied as a result of being unspoken communal ideals.
Either way, they stuck with me until my experiences proved them untenable.
On a very small scale, disappointment is deeply sad when you think about it. Unmet expectations can be heartbreaking when one puts a lot of stock into the object of their hope. Life is generally full of disappointments large and small. As an athlete, playing a sport here is full of highs and lows — successes, but more often disappointments. I had an image of what Yale would be like as an athlete, and it turned out to be an unrealistic one. That disappointed me in a big way, and I was deeply upset by it for too long. I think a lot of people have had similar experiences with Yale, expecting it to be a kind of utopia for one reason or the other — only to find that it is, in fact, a real place with problems like any other place. Life is full of these things: a relationship that ends, an application denied, whatever the case may be. If one puts a great deal of hope into something and that thing doesn’t happen (or even more cruelly, almost happens but doesn’t) it can feel crushing.
Little experiences are often not satisfying either, but they tend to be less disappointing because the stakes are lower. I love to read, but when I finish one book I feel the need to start another one. I love to travel, but as soon as I get home I want to travel more. I enjoy writing, but when I finish something, I think about what I’ll write next. The lack of satisfaction with small pleasures is balanced with the fact that I do enjoy those things. It’s not as though I’m on a quest for the glass slipper of complete satisfaction and that these things don’t work, so I ought to abandon them. Rather, it’s that they shouldn’t be seen as a source of fulfillment. I think the same is true for the bigger and higher-stakes things in life like school, or a job, or whatever else.
Fulfillment is too tall of an order for these things. It’s too heavy, it has the potential to crush us underneath inappropriate expectations. It has the potential to steal some of the joys of life, because the joy of school or travel isn’t that they’re supposed to be ultimately fulfilling, or impressive, or satisfying. It’s that there are good and constructive things about them.
I was in Rome recently, at the Spanish Steps. I overheard someone say, “So, they’re just steps?” Yeah, they’re just steps. I partially get it — stairs aren’t that impressive. Especially since the Spanish Steps are quite a famous tourist attraction in Rome. I can understand how someone might hope that the Spanish Steps would absolutely rock their world. But no one ever claimed that the Spanish Steps were anything but a really big, really beautiful set of stairs.
Things are best enjoyed with accurate expectations. And an inaccurate expectation is one that expects fulfillment. When you stop expecting to be fulfilled, you’re free to simply enjoy things as they are instead of finding constant disappointment in what you wish they’d be. Fulfillment is overrated because it can take away from simple enjoyment — and I’m not convinced it even exists.
I’ve found that I’m happier knowing this.
MITCHELL TYLER is a junior in Grace Hopper College. He can be reached at email@example.com