My “editor in chief,” as I like to call him (reader of essays, emails, and occasionally even texts, for when I’m trying particularly hard to sound like a polite and sane person) took issue with the second-to-last line of the previous (okay, and only) post. To save you some time, I’ll re-quote it: “I can never live up to my expectations, because they are not made to be lived up to.” This was even softened from my first version on Facebook, which read: “I always, always let myself down.” I decided not to change it, because I was expressing how I felt. But the point he raised has stuck with me: You cannot be content, and therefore have good mental health, if you insist on maintaining unreasonable expectations for yourself. If my expectations are, as I say, “not made to be lived up to,” that inherently makes them unreasonable. Moreover, I also translate the unreasonable expectations for myself to others, who of course cannot live up to them either. I get caught in a cycle of setting unreachable standards for myself, judging myself, projecting this anger onto other people while setting unreasonable standards for them, watching them fail to meet my expectations, judging them, getting angry at the cycle …
As usual, I reach out to what I have read to help me work through these issues. Annie Lamott is an author I enjoy – her books are my few “pleasure reading” books that I read simply for relaxation. Besides being outrageously quirky and funny, she is very insightful about herself and the human condition. Annie is an ex-alcoholic and ex-drug addict and a single mom, and though I am neither of those things, I connect deeply with her insights. She understands and expresses that even when life does not seem particularly hard, it still can feel like it. Living is an ordinary task, but the ordinary tasks can challenge us, frustrate us, make us sad or angry or disappointed. And that the next day, we may turn around and feel joyous and content… and then back again. Here’s some of my favorite lines of recent:
“I don’t know why the most we can hope for on some days is to end up a little less crazy than before, a little less down on ourselves. I don’t know why we have to become so vulnerable before we can connect with God, and even sometimes with ourselves.” (Plan B, p. 28).
“It’s so hard to get quiet enough, free enough of the bondage of self, to hear the voice in the wilderness that Job heard. There’s always so much shouting going on in here [in her mind]. It’s a cacophony of sounds from my childhood– parents and relatives and teachers and preachers and voices distilled into what has become my conscience. But I don’t think the still small voice is my conscience. Maybe it’s God, maybe it’s the true unique essential me– and maybe those are the same thing. It’s so hard to hear it though, and sometimes when I think I hear something in my own true voice, I’m so nuts that I’m not sure if it’s me or someone pretending to be me. It seems like when it’s really you, the voice doesn’t even have to talk.” (Operating Instructions, p. 158-9).
We grew up being told to listen to our conscience to know the right thing to do. However, I find our conscience (or at least mine!) can often be overbearing and full of the noise of the world and our past experiences, constantly yipping at us and tell us what we “should” do. Our minds, our false selves, our consciences – whatever you call it -often get in the way of listening to that true self.
“I tried to drop my attention from my head to my heart, which is actually an ascension of sorts… still, my mind chattered on, as if the spider monkey had taken acid. My mind is the main problem almost all the time. I wish I could leave it in the fridge when I go out, but it likes to come with me. I have tried to get it to take up a nice hobby, like macrame, but it prefers to think about things and jot down what annoys it.” (Plan B, p. 259).
I feel the same way. When I regain a moment of sanity, I realize that all these expectations I build around myself are like a fortress to protect against the awful, dooming sense of meaninglessness. When I am able to trust for a moment that the expectations just make a crepe paper fortress – that they do not truly protect against anything – I try to settle down into my heart. I attempt to meditate, to do centering prayer, and release the anxiety in my chest and instead rest in the Divine Presence. It’s so hard though to “wake up” from that time (if my mind was able to stop its chattering at all) and feel like my same old self once I am challenged with interactions of any kind. When will these changes come?
Unfortunately, the only way out is through, and meanwhile I must endure the roller-coaster merry-go-round cycle of holding on and letting go. Of remembering it all doesn’t matter, and at the same time it all does. I have hope that I will find release from this, but until then, I must wait patiently and let the work be done in me … releasing one small expectation at a time, until I can find contentment in things just the way they are.
I leave you with a quote from the Tao Te Ching, which was written in about 6th century BC in China by Lao Tzu. It is an essential text for Taoism, and later became adopted into the Zen Buddhism tradition. I have been reading it recently and find its contemplative perspective very profound. This quote is from Stephen Mitchell’s English “version,” but even though it is not a direct translation, I think it speaks to our culture quite well:
“I have just three things to teach: / Simplicity, patience, compassion. / These three are your greatest treasures. / Simple in actions and in thoughts, / you return to the source of your being. / Patient with friends and enemies, / you accord with the way things are. / Compassionate toward yourself, / you reconcile all beings in the world.