We'd just finished decorating the Christmas tree. Covered with pine sap and puncture wounds, I was snarfing down a soothing pound of chocolate when my 6-year-old daughter Katie asked, "Mommy, what's that?" She pointed to a single pine needle that, curiously, appeared to be levitating in midair about four feet away from our new tree. Squinting, I saw a tiny string of spider silk connecting the needle to the ceiling. I thought of brushing it away but decided I was way too tired to walk across the living room.
"Oh," I said, "why, that's the...the Magic Pine Needle! Don't touch it! The reindeer need it for...uh...morale."
Fast-forward a year.
Now Katie was 7, and along with her younger brother and sister, she'd just helped me put the finishing touches on a blue spruce.
"Okay!" she crowed when the last bauble was hung. "Now all we need is the Magic Pine Needle!"
"The what? Oh, right! The Magic Pine Needle!" I rubbed my eye, which felt like it had been stabbed by a stray branch. "Um, well, see, that was a one-time deal. Every family gets the Magic Pine Needle only once in a lifetime."
All three of my children stared at me as though I'd just stuffed Santa into the trash compactor, along with the miraculous Hanukkah lamp, the Kwanzaa candles, and the baby Jesus. "You didn't tell us that!" gasped Katie as her siblings set up a dirgelike wail. "What good is Christmas without the Magic Pine Needle?"
That was the only time in my life I have actually gone looking for a spider. I never found one.
Ever since, the memory has reared its accusatory head whenever my children show the slightest sign of dysfunction. Teenage cynicism? Computer-game addiction? Disinterest toward math? Part of me believes that if I'd just kept my mouth shut, avoided creating unrealistic expectations, I could have averted them all.
But of course, the real issue isn't the Magic Pine Needle. The real issue is managing assumptions. Many of us have misconceptions about how to do that, but expectation management, so necessary this time of year, is a vital skill you need no matter what the season.
Our thoughts about an event can have a dramatic effect on how we go through the event itself. When our expectations are low, it's easy to be pleasantly surprised. When they're not, we're vulnerable to painful disappointment. Because of this, many people spend a good deal of effort trying to avoid developing high hopes about anything.
I learned this from a terrifically scientific poll I conducted by discussing preconceptions with several friends, plus a UPS delivery person who showed up at my house unexpectedly during my research. The consensus was that we should learn to live in a Zen-like state of present-moment awareness, looking forward to nothing and so precluding disappointment. If we can't manage that, we should at least diminish our expectations until they're pretty much invisible to others (and, in a best-case scenario, to ourselves). A third recommended strategy was deliberately bracing for bad things so that reality, when it arrives, will at worst confirm our predictions but potentially be a happy surprise.