Meaningful Travel Basics: Expectations

by Steve Brock on October 18, 2010

What would you expect to encounter on a trip to the ancient Library of Celsus in Ephesus?

I’ve often thought about expectations in the same way people quip about the opposite sex: You can’t live with ‘em and you can’t live without ‘em. We raise our expectations, lower them, adjust them and just plain have them of ourselves, God, others, events, the weather and other things we can’t control. But one thing is sure: rarely do our expectations align with our actual experiences.

Part of the reason for this is that expectations often sneak up on us. We’re about as aware of forming expectations as we are of say, growing our eyebrows. Both come and go and just sort of show up, sometimes in ways and places we don’t really appreciate.  

With eyebrows, however, we can at least look in the mirror and pluck that unibrow into some manageable, aesthetically congruent hedge. With expectations, we rarely consciously acknowledge we have them until suddenly we’re surprised to find them lying crushed and contorted in that pile we call disappointment. And nowhere does this show up more than when we travel.

Travel to new places often disappoints because we usually have no basis of comparison with our own experience. Thus, we create expectations based on what we’ve heard or read from others. If the reports are good – and travel magazines sell because they focus on the favorable stuff – our expectations get raised higher than the aforementioned eyebrows at a bible study when the new couple starts talking about their sex life.

If what we hear or read is negative, we may rightly lower our expectations. Curiously, however, instead we often write off the author’s words as their opinion, their trip. Ours, we’re convinced, will be much better. And so once again, our expectations head the direction of the mercury on a summer day in Phoenix.

I remember one particularly bad case of expectations T-boning into reality and leaving some emotional casualties.

Ephesus did lead some people to pause and reflect (or maybe just rest in the shade)...

My family was visiting Turkey. We knew we were going to travel to ancient Ephesus, so we scoured our guidebook and re-read the letter to the Ephesians and the appropriate passages in the Book of Acts. We talked among ourselves about the cultural, historical and biblical significance of Ephesus. We prepared ourselves for a personal intersection with history and maybe even with God.

Instead we encountered tourists. And more tourists. On a really, really hot day. Moreover, our guide had a gift. She could take any of the intriguing historic points throughout the ancient ruins and find the most minute and least interesting aspects to explain in a singsong pattern that has left me with a periodic twitch in my right eye to this day.

I’m sure in other circumstances the ruins of Ephesus would be fascinating, even moving. But my son Connor, who was nine at the time, summarized it best later that evening: “Dad,” he said, “I wanted Ephesus to be special. But instead it just seemed like a big pile of rocks.”

On another day, with different expectations, even these marble fragments might have cried out with deeper meaning. But today they seemed like "just a pile of rocks."

Oh how true. We so wanted it to be meaningful but our experience did not compare to our expectations. It rarely does. So what can we do?

I can tell you that just being aware that you have expectations is half the battle. Or I can remind you that expectations are merely a form of your imagination. They may be founded on facts, but expectations are projections into the future, imaginative wonderings and nothing more. Or perhaps I can note that expectations (which often disappoint) differ from anticipation (which often excites and gives us hope) because with the former, we’re projecting a specific outcome or scenario but with the latter, we look forward without a set prescription for how things should occur.

I can tell you all that, but even better, I can show you a more meaningful way to travel. It’s an approach that may not avoid expectations completely but that minimizes their effect on us and our trips.

If you’re expecting me to tell that to you right now, you’ll be disappointed. The alternative to traveling with expectations requires more space than I have here. Thus, you will have to wait until the next entry. And when you do read it, my guess is that it probably won’t be what you expect.

Things rarely are.

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