I enjoy movies. Film, at its best, is not only a form of entertainment and escapism, but also a facet through which we can learn about ourselves. After all, filmmakers aim to tell a story, and all stories have a message. Actors, writers, producers, composers, cinematographers, and directors come together to share that message with the audience. It can be one illustrating the conflict between good and evil (Star Wars), humanity versus nature (Jurassic Park), and even hope (The Shawshank Redemption). These themes resonate with audiences, not just because they are eternal, but because the films in which they appear communicate that message so well. Smaller films, too, have the power to do this. One of my favorite films recently gave me a realization as I reflected upon my service year: the 2009 romantic comedy-drama 500 Days of Summer.
The film depicts the relationship between Tom and Summer, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, respectively. The film goes through the ups and downs of their relationship in a non-linear fashion, shuffling back and forth between important moments during the span of 500 days. One scene, in which Tom tries to rekindle his relationship with Summer, shows him attending a social at her apartment. The screen then splits into two juxtaposed camera panels, with the left panel showing the headline “expectations” and the right panel showing the headline “reality”. The panels continue throughout the scene side-by-side in two different viewpoints, one in which Tom’s expectations play out, and one in which the reality occurs. In Tom’s “expectations”, him and Summer laugh, bond, and end up back together. However, in Tom’s “reality”, the two share awkward banter, and Tom comes to discover that Summer has become engaged with another man. The stark differences between the two scenes is both jarring, but also serves as a sobering lesson that I have recently connected to my experiences this year.
I have spent a great deal of time thinking about expectations, especially how they have played out when they meet reality. Expectations cannot only be viewed as things we want to happen, but also standards that we have of others and ourselves. I had many expectations of my first year as a Lasallian Volunteer. I expected a thriving city where I would be able to explore, have fun, and experience new things. I expected a job where I would gain professional teaching experience, further confirming my goal of becoming a teacher. Overall, I expected things to work out for me and that this year would give me opportunities that I envisioned.
I have had many frustrations and struggles this year, from an inconsistent and ever-changing work environment to a city where life seems like it’s at a standstill. I also fell short of the expectations I had of myself. I often took on too many projects, or did not have the proper resources to do my job well. I had so many things I wanted to happen, but as time went on, fewer and fewer expectations came to fruition. I was burned out and had a difficult time trying to justify to myself why I was doing all of this. I blamed others for the way my service year turned out. Nevertheless, I made the decision to apply for a second year with the program, and during that process, I came to a realization.
When I filled out my application, I thought it would be a good idea to look at my first-year essays for the Lasallian Volunteers to see what I could learn. I was looking for parts where what I had in mind actually came to light. They were there, to be sure, but were few and far between. I looked over all my responses and realized that reality rarely, if ever, meets our expectations. However, I also realized that this is not a bad thing. Instead of asking myself “how did I expect things to work out?” I asked, “how did things actually work out?” By simply changing my perspective, I came to appreciate so much more about my service year.
Though I have not had the service year I expected, I learned so many things that were, for lack of a better word, unexpected. I had the expectation that I would be able to teach social studies, but instead I was able to sit down with my students and really get to know who they are. I learned their personalities, strengths, challenges, hopes, and dreams. I may not be a classroom teacher, but I’ve gained experience in helping students with college research, job applications, and life skills. I had the expectation that I would be able to explore a thriving city. Racine is classified as a city, but during the long Wisconsin winters it becomes a sleepy coastal town. Things slow down, and I learned to slow down, too. Instead of putting value in bars, clubs, and other social venues that twenty-somethings like to frequent, I came to value the people and the authenticity and generosity. I have worked with coworkers, students, families, and community members that make me see the value of my work in a different way. Instead of seeing things how I wanted to view them, I learned to see things as they are.
Expectations can be delicate. Not only do we have them of ourselves, we also have expectations of others and of our jobs. Whenever our expectations meet reality, they are subject to change. It is healthy to have a clear vision of what we want things to be, but we have to learn to be flexible. Real life has thousands of variables, and any one of them can derail our expectations. The hardship is learning to accept what we can’t control, and that is the most difficult challenge. After all, we want what’s best for ourselves and the people we serve. The problem is despite the expectations that we have, no matter how high they are, they almost never work out the way we planned. We may not be able to control how our clients act, or how the lessons or events we plan pan out when met with reality, but we can control how we view and react to the situation. We can choose to have an open mind. We can control how we roll with the punches. We can learn to appreciate the unexpected and the surprises that come with it. It helps shake up what we thought we knew. It gives us realizations that lead to new understandings. It is a struggle to reconcile our expectations and how they meet reality, but that’s how we grow in our service. Take time to look at your service and your life and ask yourself one question: what didn’t you expect?
Jeff Lucia is a 1st year LV serving at John XXIII Educational Center in Racine, Wisconsin and is a 2015 graduate of La Salle University.