Expectation robs us of the beautiful coincidences that can change the course our life and leads us towards our destiny. For writers, expectation and ego can be the most damaging vices of all.
“Expect nothing; live frugally on surprise.”
I have a confession to make…I’m addicted to expectation. Though I know, as Buddha says, the root of all human misery lies in anticipation, I just can’t help myself. I blame it on my imagination. I can conjure up just about any scenario, and I often end up haunted by the fear of potential tragedy or heartsick over unrealized joy. I just can’t help myself. When not distracted by the tasks and responsibilities of “adulting,” all fall back into thinking wistfully about what might happen.
I know that path only leads to sadness and frustration, and yet still I gallop ahead in search of ever-elusive satisfaction.
Better one good thing that is, rather than two good things that were, or three good things that might never come to pass.
Years ago, I wrote about my friend’s son and a theme park interlude we now call his “safari suit moment.” Whenever I find myself similarly wrapped up in the outcome of an action or situation, I chide myself on giving in to my own “safari suit moment.” Awareness tempers my expectancy a bit, but I always fall into the trap, and more often than not, it never plays out as I expect.
And even when it does, there’s a little magic lost when prediction meets actuality.
In Simple Abundance, Sarah Ban Breathnach breaks down the real cause of dashed hopes and separates them from the fantasies and daydreams so essential to living soulfully and authentically.
“Many of us mistakenly think that lowering our expectations means we must surrender our dreams,” writes Ban Breathnach. “Dreams and expectations are two very different things. Dreams call for a leap of faith, trusting that the Spirit is holding the net so that you can continue in the re-creation of the world with your energy, soul gifts, and vision.”
In the end, it’s all about the ego.
“Expectations are the emotional investment the ego makes in a particular outcome,” explains Ban Breathnach. “The ego’s expectations are never vague: Oscars, magazine covers, the New York Times bestseller list.”
“Your dreams must manifest exactly as the ego imagines or someone isn’t going to be very happy. And guess who that is? The ego!”
If you can change your mind, you can change your life.
So how do we battle expectation and the misery that trails along behind it? The first step is acceptance, followed by discipline. William James, philosopher and psychologist brother to novelist Henry James, encouraged Victorian era dreamers to accept the world as it already exists. We can’t change reality, James argued, but we can change the way we view and react to that reality.
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes,” wrote James. “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”
James had three strategies to change your life for the better:
- Start immediately.
- Do it flamboyantly.
- No exceptions.
Discipline will help train your mind to abandon expectation for a more generous view of living that hinges on an adaptable mindset. By training yourself to turn away from specific outcomes, you open yourself up to delightful surprises.
“I don’t think any of our dreams begin to come close to the dreams Spirit has waiting with our names on them,” declares Ban Breathnach. “I also believe we’ll only find out once we start investing our emotions in authentic expression, not in specific outcomes.”
I once knew a girl who kept a list of specific attributes she believed would identify her future soulmate. I happened upon her list, taped to the door of her closet after she’d retreated to her mother’s house on the heels of a broken engagement. As my eyes scanned all her must-haves, I noticed that the now-unsuitable groom possessed many of the qualities she’d longed for, including one of three preferable careers and an appearance that eerily mimicked the height, hair color, and complexion she’d outlined.
Missing from the list: a sense of humor, compassion, empathy, kindness.
Most distressing of all, by giving the Universe an itemized list, she eliminated the possibility of the happy surprise. And what’s the point of living if all you ever get is only exactly what you ask for.
Or as Mad Men’s Joan Holloway astutely observed, “Sometimes when people get what they want they realize how limited their goals were.”
The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.
Expectation may be the biggest obstacle a writer faces, and I blame it for most of my episodes of writer’s block. I can be swimming laps or driving down a long stretch of highway, and my mind will conjure up the perfect story. I’ll let my thoughts meander, creating characters and plot points.
As the picture starts to solidify, I get excited – finally, the inspiration for my groundbreaking, awarding winning novel has at last arrived. Once I get this all down on paper, I’ll be unstoppable as the money and accolades roll in. I’ll be able to quit my day job. I’ll end up laughing over wine with Kathy Lee and Hoda. I’ll buy my parents that house and take my best friends on that long-promised trip to Ireland.
And that’s when it happens – the moment I fail. All that creativity gets redirected into what my ego wants, and I lose the thread. By the time I sit down to write out what wandered into my brain through the divine ether of ideas, I’m stalled; stuck on what could have been and barred from ever discovering what was meant to be.
Or maybe it’s not even that extravagant. Maybe you just sit down at the computer to jot down a couple of ideas when suddenly, what sounded so great in your head comes out lame and boring and derivative. The keyboard fails to transpose delicate, amorphous concepts. You end up with too many ellipses and too many passive sentences. It’s dull and awful, and you feel like giving up.
“I know the Lord will help – but help me Lord, until You help.”
The surest way to banish artistic expectation is to just keep creating in spite of your ego’s demands. You have to let go and you have to let yourself write badly. You need to tell your ego to shut the fuck up and go sit down in the corner until it can find a way to be helpful. Then you need to ask the universe for help, and sit back silently – however long it takes – and wait for the reply.
Sometimes when I’m facing a particularly important task or event, I follow Sarah Ban Breathnach’s advice and ask for grace. I’m not particularly religious or spiritual, but I do believe in the power of asking. It’s a bit of a psychological trick if you think about it. By requesting assistance, you humble yourself, and that’s the best way to disarm your ego. Release pride and release a particular outcome, and your ego will lose all its weapons.
And then you can create something more wonderful than you could have ever imagined.
“Dreaming, not expecting, allows Spirit to step in and surprise you with connection, completion, consummation, celebration. You dream. Show up for work. Then let the Spirit deliver your dreams to the world.”
Cover photo by PROArTeTeTrA via Flickr