Friday, November 19, 2004

Great Expectations

When I was 17, I attended a month-long wilderness survival course in southern Utah. It was a very intense experience where I learned a lot about my limitations and how far I could push them. I also learned a lot about expectations.

One of the leaders, a man in his early 20’s named John, told me something one day that I’ll never forget. We were resting at the end of a long day of hiking, thinking we were almost ready to stop for the night, when he said “saddle up, we have a lot of miles left to go.” I was angry and frustrated, because I had really expected to be finished soon, and I could just taste the lentils and rice I knew we would be having for dinner.

What John later said about the situation was “don’t live by your expectations.” Don’t let your desire for a specific outcome leave you frustrated and angry when that outcome is not realized. Be flexible enough to accept what comes to you after you have planned and hoped and worked for something else. I have spent the last 20 years trying to make this idea part of how I live my life.

“Don’t live by your expectations.” This advice is congruent with something I learned more recently at UU Leadership School, which is “let go of outcomes.” To let go of the outcome of a situation, focus on process and relationships over goal achievement. Allow how you go about your tasks and how you relate with others to be more important than your accomplishments.

Of course, like all important life lessons, learning to let go of expectations and outcomes is much easier said than done. We are programmed from birth to look toward the future, set goals, and make plans. Letting go becomes a wonderful Taoist paradox: you must make plans and set goals in order to live your life, yet at the same time have no expectations about the outcome.

The essence of letting go of expectations and outcomes is to let go of their power over how you live your life and how you relate with other people. It requires intention and focus, and a commitment to live life as a continuum of experience rather than as a series of accomplishments. Letting go of expectations and outcomes requires putting other people and your relationships with them ahead of the issues between you. It is always hard work. Some days it is nearly impossible.

I believe that living an intentional life, rich in experiences and relationships, can lead to happiness, peace, and enlightenment. The rare periods in my life when I have opened myself to just living, without striving to force every situation into a desired outcome, have been the times when I have made the greatest strides of self-understanding and been happiest. Usually these “moments of clarity” came on the heels of some great disappointment, out of the crushed expectations of an outcome that did not come out my way.

In typical human fashion, though, I always once again make my plans and develop my expectations, forgetting to live my life rather than focus on the next accomplishment. Life always catches up, so the next disappointment reminds me to stop living by my expectations, and the cycle begins again. The ever-flowing Tao is always there, careless of whether I choose to ride its currents, strive against it, or get out and walk.

In my current situation, it is particularly difficult for me to let go of expectations and outcomes. Obviously I am very focused on one outcome: getting home safely to my family. “Letting go” of this outcome means transcending the daily tedium, disappointments, and frustrations to glean the essence of my experiences. It means holding my beloved community of family and friends in my heart and head, while simultaneously honoring and developing the relationships I have with the people I know here. It means living my life here and now. It is hard work. Some days it is nearly impossible.


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