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Not-So-Great Expectations

Bill Meredith

"Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness,
and others have greatness thrust upon ’em."
             …Shakespeare, "Twelft Night."

"Set your expectations low, and you’ll be seldom disappointed."
…Tony Hillerman’s mother.

(November, 2013) I have reached the point in life where my last three grandchildren are in college. One of them has found an area of study that he likes, is good at, and will lead to a promising career; the other two, like the majority of students their age, are still searching. It is a stressful process; I know, for I was an advisor to college students for 41 years, and before that, I went through the process myself. During that time it seemed that everyone I met asked the same question: "What are you studying to be?" I remember getting a lot of advice; most of it was unsolicited, and the majority of it was bad. So I do not talk to my grandchildren about careers unless they bring up the subject, and I try not to give advice unless they ask for it. Nevertheless, I think about them, and that in turn leads me to muse about the way I arrived at my own career. It was not unique. One of the people who shared it was Tony Hillerman.

Hillerman is one of my favorite writers. He was born about eight years before I was, and grew up in Oklahoma during the years of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. It was, as Dickens would have said, the worst of times; people in his community literally struggled to stay alive, and there were no signs that things would get better. His mother was tough-minded and resilient, and she prepared him for life by telling him that if he set his expectations low, he would be seldom disappointed. Eventually, of course, things did get better; he went to college, joined the army, survived the war despite being badly wounded in Germany, worked as a journalist, and later became a university professor. He wrote 18 best-selling novels and 12 other books, and a few years ago when he died at age 83, he was listed as one of the wealthiest men in New Mexico. He had a keen sense of irony, and was well aware that, starting with nothing and not planning for any grand goals, he’d had a good life. So, toward the end of it, he wrote an autobiography entitled Seldom Disappointed.

When I read Hillerman’s autobiography, I was struck by the parallels between his life and mine. In the details, of course, we were completely different, but both of us seemed to wander along without a long-range plan or a grand goal to drive us, taking advantage of whatever opportunities we stumbled upon. Like him, my expectations were aimed low. The prestige careers of the time, medicine and law, were too expensive to be considered seriously, so I entered college without a specific career in mind. As best I can remember, I simply hoped for a good marriage and a family, and some kind of job that would allow me to support them; and as the years passed, fortune was kind. In church recently, I heard an excellent sermon on the wisdom of being content with what you have in life; and as I listened to it, I thought, "Tony Hillerman achieved that. And by some combination of serendipity and dumb luck, so did I."

I did not start out with the intention of becoming an ecologist, and I don’t believe in predestination, but I’ve often thought that both my father and my grandmother unintentionally pre-programmed me for that career. I have written often about Grandma’s influence by letting me "help" in the garden from the time I was big enough to walk, and by her frequent references to the almanac in explaining what made things grow. Likewise, I often recall Dad’s habit of naming plants and animals for me when we went to fetch the cows each evening, and the stories he told of felling trees and hauling them to the sawmill when he was a boy. When I was very small, he seemed to know everything. As I proceeded through school, I came to realize that he didn’t, but even so, he knew more than anyone else in our neighborhood. So when I went to college I looked for role models like that. When I found that my best teacher was a biologist, I gravitated to him without any conscious soul-searching, and the die was cast.

Time has slipped by, and it is fall again. The maple tree across the street sat there patiently while we went through a mild drought in September, half of its leaves turned brown and dropped off. Then in mid-October we got nearly seven inches of rain in two days, and almost over-night the remaining leaves turned to such a bright gold that it hurts my eyes when the sun hits them. During the drought the grass in my yard died back and the ground got too dry for earthworms to penetrate, so they curled up in their burrows and waited; the robins disappeared, and some of my friends thought they had migrated early, but after the rain they reappeared. They had simply moved into the woods around streams, where the ground was still soft and worms were still available, and now they are back, feasting on the crab apples in my back yard. Meanwhile, the grass turned green again before the rain had even stopped, and now it needs mowing… perhaps I’ll get to it. The rain brought up a few misguided dandelions, purple dead-nettles and other spring flowers that mistook the shortening days for spring photoperiods, as they always do. I no longer need detailed information about weather for teaching ecology, but I still dutifully record the temperature and rainfall each day, because Grandma said it was important to know such things. Because of that habit, I knew in advance that the first frost would come this week, so last Saturday I picked the last peppers from the garden, and they now rest in jars on the kitchen counter, waiting for me to carry them to the basement. Contentment.

I should offer one caveat. I never would advise students or grandchildren not to dream or to have aspirations. The world does not owe us a living; "low expectations," as Hillerman used the term, doesn’t mean sitting around and waiting for handouts. Rather, it means having a realistic knowledge of yourself, and doing your best to achieve what is possible. Satisfaction in a career… what I have called contentment… is possible only when you know you’ve done the best you can. Malvolio, the doleful sourpuss who said some achieve greatness and some have it thrust upon them, was right, as far as he went; but he left out one important category. Some of us… indeed, most of us… never do achieve greatness. But that does not preclude our leading useful and, indeed, happy lives. Perhaps, if my grandchildren ask about it, that is what I should tell them.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith