Are you future phobic? How anticipating the future brings joy in the present…
– Essay by Melissa Kuipers –
Shortly after I got engaged I became obsessed, not with planning a white wedding or dreams of happily-ever-after, but with a fear of my soon-to-be husband dying. Walking to work I was suddenly overwhelmed with an image of him lying on the side of the road in a pool of blood, his bicycle thrown in the ditch. Sitting at my computer turned in imagining us in the doctor’s office holding hands and receiving a terminal diagnosis. Waiting for him to open my apartment door evolved into fear of opening the door to the pitying faces of police.
I’ve read enough Brene Brown now to be completely qualified to diagnosis my past self with an acute case of Fear of Vulnerability. Dying spouses are a familiar scene in my family. Three of my uncles died when their children were young. My mother’s father died when she was 10, leaving my socially isolated immigrant income-less grandmother to raise her seven children on a widow’s pension. My own mother died when we children were all in our 20s. The grief of widowhood is not unfamiliar to me.
I had been mostly single until I met my husband at 30. I wasn’t sure if I wanted children. But when I met him I suddenly wanted them; I had found a person I not only perpetually enjoyed being around, but also someone I expected I could happily co-parent with.
Still, it took me longer than it took him to know that this was the right decision for me. When I finally committed to a lifetime together, the fear of losing him overpowered me. It just felt so risky to join my life with someone, to share most of our everythings. If I could prepare myself for the possibility of it, some part of my brain told myself, I would be better able to deal with tragedy when it happened.
Except, as most of us know, tragedy seldom happens as you expect.
Eventually the fears subsided, but never fully dissipated. Five years and two kids into our marriage, I think of his potential death less often now, but still more than I’d like to admit.
My husband is an enthusiastic forward-looking type. He gets excited about upcoming trips, parties, events, especially during these busy and tiring days of caring for young children. I’m not completely resistant to anticipation—I just try to keep it at bay for as long as possible. “I’m really looking forward to __________,” he’d say, to which I’d reply, “Just keep your expectations in check.” A sort of low-level anxiety rises up within me, an unrecognized discomfort with his potential disappointment. “The weather might not hold up,” or “Remember they cancelled on us last time.”
During this pandemic, my husband has been deeply craving outings: football games at the bar, games nights in friends’ living rooms, family get-togethers, and date nights out of house arrest without the kids. For him, these activities are invigorating and a regular requirement for his mental health. It’s the combination of good company and good food and drink that make them meaningful.
Because we cannot easily access the good, in-person company, food has become more important to both of us. I bake and ferment: being on maternity leave, I have flexibility to lean into the millennial clichés and nurture my sourdough and kombucha. He opts for take-out as his coping mechanism. But as the stingy, DIYer who does most of the cooking, I seldom opt for ordering in. When he suggests we schedule a take-out meal at the end of the week, I say, “Well, I’ve got the meals all planned out already and I don’t want to waste produce.”
It wasn’t until a recent tiff that I realized what take-out actually means to him. “We can afford to order in a lot more than we do,” he said to me, “and I think you enjoy the break from cooking.”
“I’d rather keep take-out as a back-up plan, for days when the kids are clingy and I’m feeling overwhelmed,” I said.
“I get that. It’s just that when we order last minute, I don’t have a lot of time to get excited about it.”
“Ohhhh. . .” I said, finally understanding why he was suggesting take-out on a regular basis. “Knowing it’s coming is part of the enjoyment.”
“I spend so much time fanaticizing about food,” he said. He thinks about his favourite meals, reminisces about restaurants, dreams about where he’ll go out for dinner when this is over. I suddenly realized my brain has been doing the same thing, less consciously. Several times a week I wake up salivating from a dream about a meal so elaborately imagined that the memory of the taste stays with me for hours.
“I need things to look forward to,” he said. “It’s embarrassing how much I look forward to games night over Zoom, or to ordering take-out since we can’t go out, or to dragging the TV outside to watch the football game with friends.” Looking-forward to small pleasures was getting him through these dark days of lockdown.
“Better to have anticipated and not have than to never have anticipated at all?” I asked.
I realized then that, in my many attempts to protect him over the years, I had been diminishing his positive experience of things.
Relationship experts, doctors Julie and John Gottman, became notable a number of years ago for popularizing their research on “bids” in communication. We regularly extend bids for conversation, affection and interest to our loved ones. Throughout the day we make requests through statements to our partners, parents and friends: anything from, “Do you think it will rain today?” to “What are you binging?” to “Do you like this outfit?” to “Look what I drew!” can be a bid, an invitation for engagement, approval, response, empathy or shared experience. To offer a bid is to risk. It’s saying, join me in this moment.
If saying, “I’m really looking forward to ____________,” is a bid, then saying, “You might want to keep your expectations low,” might be a rejection of that bid. My husband is inviting me to dive into the shared experience of anticipation. My reaction is to try to pull him out of the pool while wearing my life jacket over my clothes.
Anticipation is vulnerability. It’s excitement for what could happen, and, for those of us who lean towards anxiety or self-protection, it seems like setting oneself up for failure.
I’ve already seen the painful ways this has unfolded in our marriage. When I showed my husband a positive pregnancy test a month after we decided we were going to start trying to conceive, I said, “Just so that you know, they estimate over 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage.” “Congratulations?” he said. My husband had wanted to be a father as long as he could remember. But when I was the one whose body held the promise of children, he took his lead from me. In order to avoid the pain of disappointment, I stifled that initial elation for both of us.
Our baby was born nine months later. My husband has not yet died. Most of the things he has looked forward to have been positive experiences.
And, to validate that niggling warning voice in my head, some have been disappointing. In response that voice says, “Maybe you put too much weight on this event.” But I wish instead I had revelled in his joy of looking forward. I wish that I had understood that, along with all the clichés and axioms, anticipation is part of the journey, and it’s not just about the destination.
In writing this, I tried to find out who coined the phrase, “Keep your expectations low and you’ll avoid disappointment.” But I couldn’t find any one originator. Instead I found many versions of that sentiment, scrawled in artsy fonts across pastel backgrounds, the meme or Instagram version of the inspirational poster. This sentiment is too cliché, too normative, too human nature to have one author. Most of us gravitate towards some level of self-protection as a default.
And yet we hold this tendency in tension with hope and desire. We cannot move forward or pursue goals or set them or plan or design or hope without anticipation. In order to build a career, you need to imagine how fulfilling it will be. In order to plan a trip, you’ve got to envision yourself in the sun or at the sites. We all find ourselves somewhere on the spectrum of complete indifference and ecstatic expectation on any given issue. Perhaps the next popular personality typology will find some metric for this condition. ***
Urge surfing, a term coined by psychologist Alan Maratt, refers to the process of applying mindfulness practices to the urges experienced by addicts. Maratt, an expert in the field of addictions, observed that urges come in waves, with a rise in intensity, a peak, and then an eventual crash. Rather than trying to push away the desire for the substance or behaviour associated with the addiction, urge surfing encourages the individual to allow the craving to spread over them, then to pay attention to the physiological, emotional and mental sensations that come with the urge.
While research into urge surfing has yielded positive results in addictions recovery, some are looking into other implications for everyday life. Regularly we long for things we can’t, or shouldn’t, have. I might want to eat an entire container of ice cream every night, or abruptly leave my screaming children in the house while I escape to quietly enjoy a cappuccino amid the dulcet tunes of a softly lit coffee shop. I might want to skip work everyday to watch binge baking shows on Netflix. (All hypothetical cravings, of course.)
While there might be contexts in which these behaviours are appropriate, there are plenty in which they are not. So the common teaching is to avoid thinking of these desires. Distract yourself with something else. Be in the now. Be content with what you have. Push the thought away.
But what if being in the now means recognizing, even dwelling on, these cravings? What if being present in my current situation means recognizing I’m wanting something I currently can’t have?
One of the observations of research about urge surfing is that cravings, when accepted with curiosity and self-compassion, subside after 20-30 minutes. When resisted, they take longer and become overwhelming. ***
During the last May of my mother’s life, doctors discovered her constant headaches were caused by her remissive breast cancer finally creeping into her brain. My brother and his fiancée made the decision to move their end-of-summer wedding to an earlier date, to increase the chances of Mom being able to attend. While wrestling through the cognitive and physiological toll of the brain tumour—no longer able to think deeply or walk without assistance or converse without exhaustion—all she thought about was the wedding. My brother would walk into the room and she would ask: “What colour flowers are you going to have?” “How many people are you inviting?” “What song are you having for your first dance?” My sister-in-law is a saint for answering repetitive questions day after day.
The wedding came. It was beautiful and there were many tears, and Mom smiled all day long and danced in her wheel-chair all night. The next day it was all she could talk about. “I felt like a princess,” she said, forgetting she was not the star of the show.
At the end of August, when Mom could walk unassisted and cook basic meals again, I said to a friend, “I guess they didn’t need to go through the hassle of moving up the wedding after all.”
“Or maybe,” my friend said, “it’s exactly what she needed.”
Perhaps she needed the hope of a huge celebratory affair within reach to give her the strength to fight through the hardest part of living with the tumour. Doctors were working with her to not just give her quality of life, but as much quantity as her body would allow. The looking forward might have been what she needed to get through the hardest months of chemo and radiation. Maybe it was the gift of dreaming about this one special day that kept her pushing forward until she was well enough to continue on. Was the looking forward giving her the stamina she needed to override the pain of dying?
Mom continued to cradle the memories of her child’s wedding throughout her decline. In the end, the eleven months she lived after her brain cancer diagnosis was more than any of us expected.
In the dark, long nights of the first few months of my second child’s life, I spent many hours a day fantasizing about our upcoming southern vacation. On the day he was to turn four months old, we would find a brief respite from the cold months of Canadian winter in the sun. I bought a new bathing suit for my postpartum body. I packed all of our suitcases two weeks beforehand. I bought a covered floatation device so the tiny baby could join us in the pool with the protection of shade.
And then two days before we were scheduled to leave, our political leaders begged Canadians not to fly due to the sudden spread of Covid-19. I cried as I told our almost three-year-old we wouldn’t be going. His wails vicariously gave voice to my disappointment.
It took me until this recent conversation with my husband to realize how lovely the hope of this trip had been, how its benefits may have been worth the resulting disappointment that ensued when this trip fell apart. Those initial months of sleeplessness, of rocking a baby with day-night confusion for two hours straight in the middle of the night, of toddler potty-training regression and screaming fits of “Just throw the baby out the window!” as he adjusted to no longer being the only needy creature in our home—all these frustrations were minimized because of the joy of looking forward.
The anticipation of that trip was greater than a week of travel could hold. It was about more than the trip. I knew that at the time. Even so, there it was, a saccharine craving that hunkered on until I knew for certain it would not be satisfied. And then for months the memory of the daydreams still lingered like a sweet aftertaste.
Perhaps embracing the joy of looking forward means accepting that genuine happiness can still exist, even when an experience is only in our imagination. It affirms that vicarious experience is in fact experience. It isn’t always escapism or avoidance. Craving is the human gift of imagination doing some of its good work. I am slowly learning the benefit of leaning into desire and longing, of waiting and anticipation. And I am learning to schedule take-out meals in our family calendar.
About the Author – Melissa Kuipers
Melissa’s short story collection, The Whole Beautiful World, was published in 2017 with Brindle & Glass. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The Rusty Toque, Room, Qwerty, The Puritan, Joyland and other publications. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario with her husband and two children.
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