The Ruricolist is now available in print.


Who gets from life what they expect? Who finds in what they expect from life enough to justify it?

Expectation is not the same as hope. They are easy to distinguish by the reactions they bring. What you expect can only be reported or relinquished to you. Only what you only hope for can be given to you, or done for you.

Clear hopes are harmless. True, most hopes are vague; but a hope may become very specific through long handling, yet still be fulfilled by something whose correspondence to that hope is obscure except to the one who hoped.

But expectations become more dangerous as they become more specific. Every part of complex expectation inflicts separate harm when disappointed. And the harm has no scale. Principles and trifles can harm alike – sometimes the trifles absurdly too much; sometimes the principles monstrously too little. The first distortion is familiar. It is easy to understand that the little annoying disappointments point to the great traumas. But the opposite distortion, when great disappointments multiply little ones, when in the wake of trauma life becomes not unbearably painful but unbearably annoying – this distortion, though just as common, goes nameless. The first is moving; the second is disgusting. But both are the same error.

Change and uncertainty always annoy, and mostly dismay me. To find that I have unknowingly repeated myself – thought the same thought, written the same sentence, done the same thing – reassures me. It seems to prove I am not decaying. But, of course, in that I fool myself. The law of entropy is Grow or Die.

For lower life, growth conforms to expectation because the complexity of the pattern expected – the shape of a flower, the anatomy of a flea – is less than the complexity of the apparatus that produces it. The DNA of flower or flea contains (in context) all that there is to each lifeform.

For higher life, for life that learns and feels, the complexity of the product, exponentiated by indices from epigenetics to iterated algorithms and strange loops – this complexity means that expectation can never be adequate, because the complexity of the product is greater than the complexity of its causes. When expectations hold for a human being it is never the instantiation of a subjective pattern, but the dampening of complexity by powerful objective contingencies. The probable effects of these contingencies may be ascertained; and if the contingencies are powerful enough, the probable effects may be expected.

Nothing a human being, as a human being, can do matters if that human being is swimming lost, alone, naked and unbuoyed in the open ocean. The expectation of drowning is a practical certainty. But even in everyday life the certainty of an expectation is not the result of your confidence in it, but of the objective stability of the conditions of your desire: even subjective resolutions are actually objective limitations.

Most lives should arrive at an age after which the rest goes as expected. But for most of us, to be able to expect the rest of life resembles drowning. So much energy is required merely to tread water in the world that you might as well swim forward a little. Even when the riptide gets you, even you cannot swim against it, you can still swim across it.

To say that life does not go as expected is to take the side of experience. To say that life should not go as expected would be to take the side of all the evils that abuse it. So I say no such thing. But faced with two equal goods, only one of which you expect, the better choice may be the unexpected one, for three reasons. First, since it is only hoped for (or unhoped-for) you will receive it more gladly, and love it better. Second, being outside your system of expectations, it rests them, relieves them while they readjust. And third: sometimes it is wise to choice unwisely just to remember that you can choose.