After decades of study and introspection, I looked back on my life to find that all this time, I’ve been learning to live my life without expectations. I don’t live a perfect life, and I still have disappointments here and there. But when I do have disappointments, they’re a lot easier to accept because I have either no expectations or, I kept my expectations to a minimum.
I don’t know if it’s possible to eliminate all expectations. We have to make some assumptions just to accept reality as it is. We expect gravity. We expect the sun to rise and set. We can expect very hot days, rain and snow once in awhile. We can expect that someday, we’ll die. Every one of us.
I think that a big part of the problem I have with expectations is that I think I should have some control over outcomes. In that respect, I have learned to detach from outcomes, and that detachment has brought a peace dividend far greater than I had anticipated.
When I was a younger man, my life was not so easy. There was once a time in my life when I thought I wanted to die. I thought that I had made so many mistakes that I wasn’t lovable. I thought that the defects I was born with (blind in one eye with a nystagmus, deaf in one ear), made me unlovable. I lacked certain social skills. I wasn’t making enough money to keep above water, I was still living in an apartment, and on and on and on. I was supremely negative and pessimistic, and I was thinking of suicide.
I talked to a good friend about it. “Suicide? Suicide is the most selfish thing you could ever do. It’s like a slap in the face to everyone you leave behind. You have the rest of your life to think about suicide. Why don’t you do something else for awhile?”
So I resolved at that point, to just live as long as I can, and I accepted that as a challenge. I further resolved that I just wanted to live so that I could see what happens next. I made a decision to be curious about that.
This curiosity about what will happen next got some fuel when I read the book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan Watts. Upon reading that book, I began to consider the possibility that I did not need to know what would happen next in advance. I learned that the pursuit of security just for the sake of security was meaningless. I also learned that my beliefs were costing me dearly in lost opportunities at life.
I decided that I would take an honest appraisal of my beliefs and determine if my beliefs were serving me. So I began to consider what I know and what I don’t know about my beliefs. I began to shed my beliefs when I saw that they were too expensive. I began to replace my beliefs with one simple statement: I don’t know.
My exploration of the unknown continued with participation in therapy, group therapy and a variety of support groups. I have spent more than a decade working on myself in a variety of 12-step programs. I learned about reliance upon a power greater than myself. I learned that that power could be anything. The sun. A tree. A group of people. It could be anything that has greater power than me. It doesn’t even have to be God, or a god. I didn’t want higher power envy, so I chose the Universe as a higher power. What could be bigger than that? N+1?
But there was something else I got from that work. A very open ended prayer:
God, please grant me knowledge of your will for me and the power to carry that out.
Mind you, I’m still agnostic, not just about God, I’m agnostic about everything. And God is a nice shorthand for the universe, at least for me, it is. I am as much a part of the universe as it is of me. I am intimately connected to the universe.
What I like about that prayer is that it is so completely open ended. It is an open ended request, for any prayer for a particular thing would only make God into a servant. In that prayer, there is no expectation whatsoever of any particular favor or task to be done by God. If I am to be of service to anyone I encounter in a day, my mind must be completely open, so my prayers are open.
Somewhere along the way, I took an improvisation class many years ago. I can still hear the instructor, Chris Berube, telling us, “Don’t worry about making a mistake on stage! Next week, no one will remember!” And there was something else he told us,
The number one rule of improvisation is to never say “no”.
And thus continued, the opening of my mind. So I don’t say “no” very often. I assume that if I’m presented with something, I should consider it as an opportunity. I go with it to see where it will take me. I follow it to allow my curiosity to be satisfied. I don’t worry about making mistakes. I am primarily concerned with learning from mistakes.
With this line of thinking, I fumbled my way into a marriage. I fumbled my way into buying my first house. I fumbled again when I sold that house and bought a better house in a better location. I was improvising all the way to this very moment.
With each passing year, I was learning to shed my expectations. I was learning to do things, not to make things happen, but to see what will happen. As my children are showing me, life is one long series of experiments.
I have two kids, ages 5 and 3. I am improvising with them, too. I don’t worry about their mistakes, either. I do point out that some mistakes can be painful. They know the word “pain” from their own mistakes. I don’t want them to be afraid of pain. I want them to know that they can make choices that can help them to avoid pain. “See that stove? See that blue flame? That’s hot. If you touch it you will feel pain.” And despite their curiosity about what I’m cooking, they back off from the flame under the pot.
I am learning to improvise when my kids have upsets, too. I am learning that time is on my side. They can only be angry for so long because being angry is very energy intensive. I am teaching them that being angry is no guarantee that you will get what you want. I am teaching them that being angry is a consequence of having expectations.
Time is still on my side. When my kids are angry, I talk with them until they find a way to settle down, for they must set aside their anger in order to hear me, to understand me. They must set aside their anger and when they do, they have to set aside their expectations since they don’t really know what to expect with me.
Well, I do let them know that no matter what, they can always ask for hug. I let them know that I will never spank them or punish them. I want them to learn that I’m not the consequence of their actions and that there are natural consequences to their actions. I want them to learn from the best teacher, experience. I remind them that I’m always listening to what they have to say, even if they have to repeat themselves a few times, and that they can talk to me about anything.
Sometimes, when they’re angry I say, “Don’t make me smile. I might just smile back!” That will drop expectations in a heartbeat. That might even crack their anger into a smile. I have no expectations when I do this, I just want to see what happens next.
This is how I run my life. I don’t worry so much about making mistakes. I (almost) never say no. I wait to see what happens. I am optimistic. I am persistent.
Even with an iron-clad contract with other people, things can still go wrong. I have no expectations in any agreement. I only wait to see what happens next. I read the news, and it’s interesting, but I know how bad people are at predicting the future. So I wait to see what will happen next. Scientists predict that the universe will end in 10^139 years. Still, I will wait to see what happens next.
If I knew of a better way, I’d do it. So I just shed as many beliefs as I possibly can. I go about my life with as few expectations as I possibly can. I am dedicated to exercising faith as a reservation of judgment.
Belief is not faith, for belief is based on an expectation. Belief says that I actually know something, evidence or not. Faith says, “I don’t know. But I’m willing to see what happens next.”