Christopher Robin asked Winnie the Pooh what he liked doing best in all the world. “Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”
Anticipation, as Winnie astutely realizes, can be the best part of any activity. The moment between the knocking on the door and its opening. The moment between holding the gift and opening it. In that moment all is still possible. It’s intoxicating, to have that hope of possibility, to be at that moment just before fruition. Just before momentum kicks in and time moves forward. It is a great and wonderful feeling in its own right.
And yet anticipation can be tricky. So much of our lives is out of our control: weather, social systems, other people. Media offers us stories and images that have little relation to reality, which can trap us with distorted expectations. To have expectations can be an invitation to disappointment and disaster. The Christmas season is especially fraught. Another great philosopher, Anne of Green Gables, said: “When I think something nice is going to happen I seem to fly right up on the wings of anticipation; and then the first thing I realize I drop down to earth with a thud.”
Coming down hard in reality, dropping with a thud, is painful. And yet I would hate to live without the promise of anticipation. Anne of Green Gables herself says “But really… the flying part is glorious as long as it lasts… it’s like soaring through a sunset. I think it almost pays for the thud.” I think so too.
In fact, anticipation can be good for us. By delighting in future possibilities the present becomes more enjoyable. Psychological studies suggest that those who are able to savour the moment, whether it be a fond remembrance of the past, pleasure in an current experience, or anticipation of the future, are more optimistic, and better able to deal with stress and depression. Soaring through the sunset is good for us.
I admit that I love Christmas celebrations. I don’t love everything about the season, but enough that I am glad when it comes around again. I want Nat King Cole singing The Christmas Song. I love going out to the tree farm, tramping through the snow finding just the right spruce for our small living room. I love mince pies and candy canes and Cadbury’s milk tray. The smell of clementines and cinnamon beckons me. It is feast for the senses. Christmas is also a chance to reconnect with my distant relatives, to my british heritage of festive crackers with tissue paper hats. I love that it is a day out of the ordinary, outside of dull routine, belonging to a grander, timeless time.
What do you anticipate most about the holiday? Can you separate out the joy of anticipation from the burden of expectation?
Adapted from a recent sermon.