When asked the secret of their working marriage, our daughter Lolly and her husband, Doc, reply, “Low expectations.” Most couples marry with the expectation that they have chosen the one and only who will make them happy. Lolly and Doc went into marriage knowing that while it is possible for other people to cause misery, happiness is basically a personal responsibility.
Like marriage, nearly everyone enters parenthood with the expectation, or at least the hope, of doing better than their parents. Our youngest son, Techie, and his wife, Techie II, are currently surrounding their first-born with a natural environment of cloth diapers, breast milk, no pacifiers. Since I played Bach and read Yeats to Wort as soon as we got him home from the hospital, I sneer not. I know that by the time the Techies get their second child, all they’ll really hope for is a large bladder and a dry nose. And for subsequent kids, they’ll be satisfied if all the essential body parts are included.
Low expectations are especially helpful near the end of life. I suspect hope for a perfect world beyond this imperfect one accounts for much of the anxiety religious believers experience as they approach death. Religious people generally have faith that loved ones pass on to a better place. But the friends and relatives I’ve seen approaching their own deaths entertain doubts—about the existence of another world and about their own qualifications for entry.
Here’s where I think the low expectations of an agnostic relieve anxiety. Not believing in heaven relieves the worry that it may not exist or that the entry fee may be too steep. As the old saying goes, “Expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed.”