Expectations and Margin PhotoCourtesy Alex Loach, Creative Commons 2.0 License


Expectations and Challenges

Why does traffic sometimes push me over the edge? Why do I want to throw my wireless printer off the deck when it and the computer, who were playing well together, inexplicably decide to stop speaking? Why does my blood boil when I pick the “slow line” at airport security and watch the line I should have picked advance steadily while the “sucker line” I’m in merges with another and grinds to a halt?

These events are all recent (thanks for the patience, Lord…). What do they have in common? They all are unplanned time drains and they all represent unmet expectationsBilbo Baggins said it best in the Fellowship of the Ring (thank you J.R.R. Tolkein):

“I feel thin……like butter scraped over too much bread….I need a change”

Bilbo looked good on the outside, but on the inside, he was wearing down. His ability to live in his current circumstance being chipped away by the stress of a hidden evil (the ring) and those darn Sackville-Bagginses. My ability to be content gets chipped away by technology problems, traffic and having to make choices with insufficient information. But these circumstances exist. We cannot escape them. So, how do we thrive?

Pressure and Time

My wife, who does the equivalent of about seven full time jobs, expressed similar feelings to a friend about the demands of having to drive our three kids everywhere. The advice? Change the vernacular you use…you don’t “have to” drive your kids everywhere, you “get to” drive your kids everywhere. You have the privilege of participating in their lives.

Its great advice. It seems to work well for “scheduled” tasks. But to follow it when surprised – when the expectation of how a day is going to flow differs from reality? Easier said than done. Like when my kid tells me they need to print a homework assignment 60 seconds before the bus comes and the ink cartridge is empty, the flight gets cancelled, or the sales forecast is set at 4x the growth rate of the industry….

Those are the events that seem to delete the “love” button from my internal keyboard (I “get to” work harder for less money next year…). The truth is, I whine about circumstances that aren’t going to change and it hurts my attitude.


The movie Into the Wild depicts a young man, Chris McCandless, who decided society wasn’t for him, said screw it all and went to the Alaskan wilderness. While it didn’t work out exactly how he’d hoped (he died), there is a part in each of us, like Bilbo and Chris, that feels this way. A part that just wants escape from the pressure.

Let’s be honest…the day to day routine can feel crushing at times. The guilt we feel for not “being happy” when we are better off economically and enjoy more comforts than anyone in history whispers to our spirits that something is amiss. So we do what we can to change it or anesthetize the feeling, with or without asking God about it first.

When we feel pressed, whatever options are available to us tend to look better than they really are. The allure of promised satisfaction. The easy fix. But our quest to fulfill “self” will never be complete until the quest ends with God, at His son’s feet.

If only I had the wisdom to begin by asking His input rather than having to reach the end of myself first….  

Simplify for Margin

We’ve all heard that we should simplify, slow down, and give ourselves margin to enjoy life. It sounds wonderful. I completely agree, but the world’s demands seem to grow rather than shrink. The book Generation Me says that two full time incomes are now needed to provide a standard of living that one high school graduate could provide fifty years ago.

More is required of us just to keep up. More technology. More expense and time to support that technology. More training and learning. More time at work to produce the same income. How many companies do you know that are taking tasks off people’s plates and spreading the load among more employees? All of this combined with high expectations from our children, our parents (often unspoken), our spouses, our churches, our friends (if you can find time for any) and ourselves. The to do list seems endless. Is it worth even trying? 

“Once you give up hope, you’ll feel much better”

My Google search on this quote (original source unknown) turned up articles with themes like “Never give up”, “Cross the finish line” and suicide hotlines. To me, the meaning of the quote is actually quite positive. It doesn’t mean to give up hope on life and fall into despair. It means to give up the idea that you can fix everything. To give up the idea that you can create heaven on earth. It means you must continue even when you don’t have control of the outcome.

Jeff Goins in his book Wrecked tells a story about trying hard to help a homeless woman. In the end, she remained essentially unchanged. Many public servants like nurses and police and social workers deal with this feeling regularly. Jeff wrote:

“The world is broken and remains that way, in spite of our efforts to help it…This..breaks us of our self-dependency. In a world that refuses to be healed, we must face the fact that we are not the heroes of our stories. It teaches us to rely on something bigger than ourselves…”

You can’t fix everything. You can’t control others. You can’t help everyone. You can’t experience happiness every waking moment of your life and the effort to try…the desire for control, the desire to be the hero of your own story only sets you up to feel worse.

The Gap

Most of the time, it is the gap between our expectations and our experience that leads us to feel angry, hurt, sad or disappointed. The boyfriend who fails to notice your new haircut, the boss who fails to notice you worked overtime again, the mechanic who fails to fix your squeaky brakes. Our expectations of others define our experience. So, should we just lower our expectations?

Not exactly. More like, we should realize that joy usually comes from events you cannot arrange for yourself – at unexpected times in unexpected ways. It comes from One bigger than you.  Joy and satisfaction is provided to you, not produced by you.

In close relationships, every expectation you place on the other party becomes a law they must fulfill. As expectations multiply over the years, the web becomes more and more tangled and unrealistic. So, should you lower your expectations of your lovers, friends, and kids? No. You should throw them out entirely.

The people close to us who burp at the dinner table, leave their beds unmade, pass in the right hand lane and squeeze the toothpaste tube incorrectly are the ones who need you (and vice-versa) the most. They are the ones who benefit first from your gifts and talents. They are the ones God uses to shape you. To grind off the edges. They are your opportunity to embrace realistic expectations….

The only relationship that will satisfy is the one you have with God. It’s that relationship – the one where you know you have no control over the other party that will bring lasting peace. The relationships and activities where you have the illusion of control? Those are the ones that annoy. Those are the ones with the Gap.

Your job. Your yard. Your cell phone service. Your yorkie’s house training. Your curling iron – the list goes on and on and on. Every “convenience”, relationship and activity has the potential for a Gap. Unrealistic expectations only make the gap wider. 

Less is More

We went tubing in Helen, GA last week as an end of summer activity with our children kids and some close friends. The water was very low so we often hit rocks during the journey downstream. At times, the process became frustrating so I’d try to paddle this way or that to avoid the rocks, but usually the effort proved fruitless. The harder I worked, the more we got passed by “those” people – the ones reclined in their tubes, relaxing. Finally, I let go, laid back and coasted downstream. We made it further, faster, with less effort going with the flow instead of fighting the current. Less of me, less of my oh so valued (by me) effort and work and striving and stress produced better results.

“Less is more” works most of the time in life. Particularly less expectations (laws) of those closest to you. Sometimes its tough to trust the current. Sometimes its tough to believe that God’s plans for you are better than your own. But the more we try to control our lives, the more frustrated and unhappy we become. True ‘dat.

Where do you need to let go? Where do you need to trust more and control less? Who do you need to free by relinquishing an expectation (so you can be free, too)? 

I pray that God will give you and I the peace to go with the flow. To trust. To know we are not in control. To understand that the road to success in any worthwhile endeavor has a few curves. To have realistic expectations.

I look forward to your comments, fellow travelers. To you and your journey,


Jeff McKinney
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Jeff McKinney

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Jeff McKinney
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