An essay written for Verfabula, February 2021.
Anticipation - it's one of those words that sound like their meaning. An expectation of... what? Emphasis on the second syllable might give a sense of foreboding, while if it is placed on the penultimate one it seems a bit more pleasant. Try it and see if you agree.
The word, the sensation it describes, can be either exciting or terrifying. It can be energizing or paralysing, but the end result can be somewhat surprising once you arrive at it.
Take the child who is waiting eagerly for Christmas, desperately hoping for the gift of their dreams. I can vaguely remember those nights when the sense of excitement was so strong that sleep seemed an impossibility. And then the sun comes up and the moment of unwrapping has arrived... The sense of anticipation is so very strong until one of three things happen, and only one of them is pleasant.
The first is that the gift is not what they were hoping for, far from it. Depending on age this might be made instantly apparent or an act of gratitude will be called for. Regardless, disappointment is the end result.
And the same can be said when the desired gift is received but it turns out to be a let-down; certainly not the 'must-have' that it had been made out to be. Advertisers have been responsible for many a child's Christmas disappointment.
This kind of scene is not just applicable to children. A young woman, we'll call her Sue, is going on a date with her long-term boyfriend, Andrew. As the time of the date grows nearer Sue becomes convinced that he is going to propose to her, and she spends hours thinking about how she is going to accept.
At the restaurant, Sue gets a glimpse of a jewellery box in Andrew's jacket pocket, and that little glimpse lifts her sense of anticipation to an almost fever pitch. It's an expensive restaurant, one of those with dim lighting, soft music... Andrew reaches into his pocket after they have shared half of the wine and Sue gets the first clue that something is not quite right. The velveteen box is too big for a ring. Okay, her mind gets quickly to work, trying to salvage the situation... it is a ring and something else.
Hands shaking with excitement, Sue lifts up the lid and gasps. It is not a gasp of delight, as Andrew first thinks, but one caused by a blow to her heart and her emotions. There is a necklace, a beautiful necklace, but no ring. She lifts it up, still hoping that the ring had been covered up by the extravagant gift, looking in the box rather than at the way the jewels catch the light. And more than anything else, Sue now wants to cry. Gushing out a quick thank you, she excuses herself and almost runs to the rest room, hoping to hold it together until she can shut herself away.
Once again anticipation has led to disappointment. Will Sue now break up with Andrew? I guess that depends on factors other than her anticipation. Andrew is not stupid, he knows that something is wrong... and let's not forget that he had been feeling his own anticipation. He will offer to take the necklace back and change it, but Sue will assure him that she loves it. And she really does... if only she had not been so thrown; for one thing is certain, she won't explain the real reason behind her reaction.
In both of these cases the anticipation had been for a pleasant event that did not happen. How about the negative anticipation that manifests itself as a feeling of dread? Funnily enough, this generally has a far more positive ending.
Giving a speech, sitting an exam, going into a crowded room - if you're like me and suffer from acute social anxiety - all can cause an unpleasant form of anticipation. In fact, the causes of dread are impossible to list, for they would no doubt be different for each of us.
We get through the scenario in one way or another, and when we do, up pops relief. A panic subsided, we're able to breathe again - until the next time that anticipation pushes its way in and takes over the mind once again.