“Let us not return to what was normal, but reach toward what is next.”— Amanda Gorman
My dog passed away recently. For my partner and me, it was devastating. We’d poured so much love and attention on Friday for more than 15 years. Even though it was clear for months his end was nearing, we felt a tremendous loss when he finally left us. It was like there was a hole in our lives: not just a hole in our daily routines of walking and feeding and caring for him, but a hole in our hearts, where we’d held our love for him. Where was that love now that he was gone?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. That love doesn’t just disappear. Of course, it’s tied to our memories, but it’s also an energy that we have available to us, at times buried more or less deeply, and can choose to draw upon more often.
Dogs are easy to love, of course, even if they’re difficult, as Friday was (he bit; I have scars). We project all sorts of ideas and assumptions onto these unwitting creatures, and then fall in love with them. People generally are more resistant to our projections. (If dogs could speak, and complain, and make their own choices, they might not be as easily lovable.)
Since love comes from a feeling of understanding, empathy and connection, projected or not, then we have the ability to love many more beings in our lives than our pets.
In the 1990s, psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron famously developed the 36 questions they declared would lead people to fall in love. The idea was that if two people ask one another a list of increasingly personal questions, they will develop enough understanding and empathy for one another, and will feel sufficiently seen and understood, that intimacy and love develop naturally.
Outside a clinical setting we can’t often ask all those questions of other people, but just like we make assumptions about what our pets are thinking or feeling, and therefore empathize and imagine they understand us, we can choose to make assumptions about other beings that allow us to empathize and even feel love for them, too. Or, as often happens, we can choose, consciously or not, to assume the worst about someone, and thereby develop animosity toward them. If we pay attention, it can be amazing how often we’re making those negative assumptions, and the angst it causes us.
We can choose to do the opposite. Buddhists long ago created a loving-kindness meditation practice designed to bring up feelings of love by deliberately directing our wishes of well-being to others. Psychologists have studied its impact and find that such meditations, or the simple practice of reflecting at the end of every day on the most positive interactions you had with other people, actually has positive physical effects on our bodies, similar to those created by feelings of love. That love doesn’t have to be everlasting. It can be a fleeting feeling – what Barbara Fredrickson, a research psychologist at the University of North Carolina describes as “that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being,” much like you might share with your pet, or someone else’s pet, or a close friend, or even, sometimes, a stranger. That feeling, writes Fredrickson, in her illuminating book Love 2.0, is “perhaps the most essential emotional experience for thriving and health.”
We can do that at any time. We don’t have to be meditating, making lists or engaging in formal practices. It’s a choice we have in every moment.
When I was in Maine last summer with my dog Friday, shortly before he passed, I heard the Rolling Stones singing Gimme Shelter on a local radio show. It got stuck in my head, as old pop songs do, so I decided to look up the words, since I had never really been able to understand them. I realized it’s a powerful anti-war song, and concludes with the reminder that we always have a choice between war and love.
Here are the full lyrics, and here’s the chorus:
War, children It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away War, children It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away
Until the last refrain, which becomes:
I tell you love, sister It's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away It's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away It's just a kiss away, (kiss away kiss away)
I still miss Friday terribly, and those feelings of love (and also sadness) well up in my heart whenever I look at his pictures. But it’s helpful to know that those feelings don’t disappear with his mortal life. I feel a bit of them every time my neighbor’s dog Molly comes bounding up our stoop and lets me pet her. And I try to consciously conjure them, through loving-kindness meditations or just conscious choice, when I go running in the park and encounter people who I might otherwise ignore, fear or even just find annoying. (It takes less effort, of course, with cute babies and puppies.)
The point is not that that we shouldn’t feel loss, but that we can also draw on and transform and direct the love we have felt, and always have capacity to feel, in many directions. That love can give us shelter. We have a choice.
It goes without saying that these are difficult times, and a lot of people are suffering. It’s important to keep that in mind, and for each of us to do our best to help in whatever ways we can. It’s also important to keep in mind that this interruption in business-as-usual offers possibilities for imagining a different, and perhaps ultimately better, future. How might each of us contribute to that?
From futurist Matthias Horx, via Insight meditation teacher Jill Shepherd:
The world as we know it is dissolving. But behind it comes a new world, the formation of which we can at least imagine…
A massive loss of control suddenly turns into a veritable intoxication of the positive. After a period of bewilderment and fear, an inner strength arises. The world “ends”, but in the experience that we are still there, a kind of being new arises inside.
In the middle of civilization’s shutdown, we run through forests or parks, or across almost empty spaces. But this is not an apocalypse, but a new beginning.
This is how it turns out: Change begins as a changed pattern of expectations, perceptions and world connections. Sometimes it is precisely the break with the routines, the familiar, that releases our sense of the future again. The idea and certainty that everything could be completely different – and even better.
The Optimism of Uncertainty
Every January for the past several years I’ve joined activists in front of the White House to protest the indefinite detention of 40 Muslim men at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. This year, January 11 marked the 18th anniversary of the prison’s opening.
I took the train to Washington in January with a mixture of anxiety and dread. Anxiety that no one would show up, because who even remembers that the Guantanamo prison is still open? Dread because this would be yet another year where, regardless of how many people did make the effort to travel to the White House to protest, the protests would be falling on deaf ears: Donald Trump, whose support is needed to close the prison, couldn’t care less.
Still, there was something beautiful in the annual ritual. This year I had a filmmaker and cameraman with me, and the short film they created captures that. It shows ordinary Americans of all ages traveling from across the country to Washington, DC. Many of them fast for several days before the event, in solidarity with the men who’ve undertaken hunger strikes in the prison. They gather and sleep on the floor of a local church until the day of the anniversary, when they put on orange jumpsuits and black hoods to represent the plight of the 40 men still indefinitely detained, most without charge or trial, in the US military prison in Cuba.
This year, we marched from the White House to the Trump International Hotel.
“I don’t think there’s any futility in that,” Reverend Ron Stief, director of the National Religious Campaign against Torture, told us. “Human rights is a long game… We owe it to the detainees who remain there never to stop.”
The president may not have been listening, but the protesters were connecting with each other, while calling the attention of passersby who knew nothing at all about their cause.
“What is Guantanamo?” a young woman who’d recently come to the US from Argentina asked me as I stood among the crowd at the rally, listening to the various speakers. She’d been drawn to the protest while walking through Lafayette Park that sunny Saturday afternoon. I explained what it was; she stayed to listen longer.
Most activists are exhausted these days, and our actions can easily feel futile. But it’s helpful to remember we’re all playing a long game, and that there’s beauty, even joy, in just showing up for it: to support one another, to raise our voices together, and to call everyone’s attention to something larger than ourselves.
In his essay, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” the historian Howard Zinn wrote:
Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.
An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
I was in a meeting at the Pentagon recently, seated at a table surrounded by uniformed military officers and dark-suited government officials. The meeting was tense, with the officials all insisting the Defense Department was doing the right thing and I and my colleagues from other human rights organizations pointing to our evidence that in many situations, it had not. We didn’t seem to be making any progress.
At some point I glanced down at my wrist and realized I was wearing a red rubber bracelet that said in prominent white letters: “Self-Compassion It.” I’d been given the bracelet upon completing an eight-week training course in “Mindful Self-Compassion,” and had been wearing it as a reminder to use the tools I’d learned.
Nothing wrong with that, right? Still, in this buttoned-up professional setting, I was instantly embarrassed. I sheepishly tucked my hand under the table, slid the bracelet off and stuffed it into my handbag. The idea that I would be seen considering “self-compassion” in a meeting of senior warriors seemed absurd.
The idea of mindful self-compassion can sound silly, trivial and self-involved. But it’s actually anything but. As Kristin Neff and Chris Germer, the psychologists who created the Mindful Self-Compassion course explain, self-compassion has been scientifically proven to be critical to well-being.
Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion isn’t based on pumping yourself up to believe you’re better than anyone else. That keeps you in a judging mindset, so as soon as you screw up, you feel worthless again. Self-compassion is instead having compassion for yourself — not for your accomplishments, but simply because you’re a human being, flawed like everyone else, and deserving of compassion nonetheless. Once you acknowledge that you don’t have to be perfect to deserve compassion, you naturally start feeling compassion for the other less-than-perfect people around you. In other words, it’s helpful not only for yourself, but for everyone you encounter.
Neff’s book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, explains this all very well. But most convincing to me was Neff’s story of how she’s applied it in her own life.
As a small child, her son was diagnosed with autism. She felt a huge range of emotions — including disappointment, sadness, grief and fear. She had recently learned self-compassion techniques on a week-long mindfulness retreat. She describes how flooding herself with self-compassion allowed her to feel her full range of emotions — including the shame she felt at some of her reactions. Only by accepting those emotions with compassion rather than judgment could she fully experience them, to the point where she could accept and then acknowledge that she was strong enough to handle the situation. Not that it was easy, but it gave her a critical tool to deal with the challenges.
After that, when her son would start acting out — screaming and flailing in public, for example, as some autistic children do — she would comfort herself for her feelings of confusion, shame, stress and helplessness. That calmed her enough so she could respond wisely and compassionately to her son, instead of lashing out in anger or wallowing in self-pity.
Neff’s experience illustrates why self-compassion is so valuable. It allows us to face our situation, whatever it is, with compassion instead of judgment. That allows us to look at the situation more honestly and thoughtfully, and to choose more carefully how we want to respond.
If I’ve made a mistake, for example, instead of immediately criticizing myself as “stupid”, I can forgive myself for not being perfect, acknowledge the mistake, and look more closely to see what happened and what I’d want to do differently next time. Giving myself compassion instead of criticism allows me to move forward. On the other hand, if I immediately beat myself up and feel worthless, I’m going to try to hide from or forget the situation immediately and avoid looking at what I did at all. And I’m more likely to repeat the same mistake again.
The feeling of compassion, much like the feeling of love, has positive physical effects on our bodies, too. Scientists have shown it increases oxytocin, which has a calming effect on our nervous systems; it improves vagal tone, which helps the body reduce inflammation; it improves relationships, which has an anti-ageing effect, and, well, it just feels good.
The feeling of judgment or self-hatred, on the other hand, creates anxiety, which has a decidedly negative impact. Chronic self-doubt and anxiety harm the heart, immune and gastrointestinal systems. Plus they just make us feel lousy.
Compassion “involves the recognition and clear seeing of suffering,” writes Neff. “It also involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help – to ameliorate suffering – emerges. Finally, compassion involves recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is.”
Self-compassion thus places us in the sea of common humanity and allows us to extend the same compassion to ourselves we would instinctively offer to a good friend, a small child, or favorite pet. It allows us to acknowledge what’s happening, including our suffering, with kindness rather than with judgment. For those of us who’ve allowed ourselves to be ruled by self-judgment, that’s a huge relief.
“Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?” writes Neff.
It’s hard to be a human being in a difficult world. Our social and professional settings can make us feel like we constantly have to prove ourselves, to measure up, to justify our worth. As obvious as it sounds, no one’s perfect: we all make mistakes, even if we’re trying our best, usually in less-than-ideal circumstances. The simple response of kindness – both for ourselves and for others – can go a long way.
War and Peace
To escape the news recently, I’ve been immersing myself in 19th Century novels, and one theme keeps coming across: the destructive human obsession with social status.
In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, Prince Andrew Bolkonski, infatuated with dreams of glory, leaves his young pregnant wife and family to join the military. As he charges into a poorly-planned battle, he thinks:
I don’t know what will happen and don’t want to know, and can’t, but if I want this – want glory, want to be known to men, want to be loved by them, it is not my fault that I want it and want nothing but that and live only for that. Yes, for that alone! I shall never tell anyone, but, oh God! What am I to do if I love nothing but fame and men’s esteem? Death, wounds, the loss of family—I fear nothing. And precious and dear as many persons are to me—father, sister, wife—those dearest to me—yet dreadful and unnatural as it seems, I would give them all at once for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, of love from men I don’t know and never shall know, for the love of these men here, he thought, as he listened to voices in [the commander-in-chief’s] courtyard.
Prince Andrew seizes the opportunity to play the hero when it comes along. But he is soon struck down, and, not sure what has happened, finds himself falling.
Above him there was now nothing but the sky—the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. … How was it I did not see that lofty sky before?” he wonders. “And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…
At some level we all seek glory – and its reality is almost always disappointing.
This toxic form of human striving has arguably spread more widely over the years, even as living standards have risen so our actual needs are far less. As Alain de Botton explains in his book Status Anxiety, the introduction of a democratic ethos in recent centuries brought with it a growing belief in inherent human equality. No longer are some people “by nature free and others by nature slaves,” as Aristotle wrote. Now we are all free, goes the theory, and equally entitled to compete for, and to achieve, ever-higher levels of success. If we haven’t succeeded, well, it’s our own damn fault.
Modern culture thrives on this notion. Capitalism is based on making people believe that for happiness and success, they need and therefore should buy more and more things, the vast majority of which are unnecessary and often harmful. (Think junk food, McMansions & gas-guzzling cars.) It’s how our economy works: people are employed to make things we don’t really need and to figure out ways to make us believe we want them anyway. That’s also why a lot of people are unhappy in their jobs, because when they stop to think about it, they realize they’re not contributing something constructive, but instead may be encouraging people to waste their money, time and energy, and help destroy the planet in the process.
I realize I’m painting a pretty grim and one-sided picture. Lots of people provide important services to the world, like teaching, health care, nourishing food, or safe and efficient homes. But it’s also true that many of us get so caught up in wanting to prove our worth within our given social and economic systems that we rarely stop to think about what we truly value, and what we’re really trying to prove.
That’s a really important antidote to all this. When we find ourselves envying other people, for example, or feeling like a failure in comparison, we can ask ourselves, what’s important to me? What do I really want to do, and what’s important about that? Is it something I truly value, or something I think will impress others? And am I so focused on winning admiration from strangers that I can’t even see the sky?
Of course, sometimes we’re so confused by the whirlwind around us that it’s hard to know what’s important. Paying attention to what we envy can provide a clue. If I’m envying a friend or acquaintance for something I believe they have that I don’t, what is it about that thing that I want? Perhaps it’s a means of self-expression, or connection with others. It’s usually something deeper than we at first imagine.
Much of our focus on the superficial exterior comes down to a nagging desire to define ourselves, to see ourselves as a fixed entity capable of definition, which occupies a particular rung on the status ladder. But in fact, neither the ladder nor our “selves” exist in the way we think — as solid, independent entities, separate from our conceptions of them. As psychologist Rick Hanson writes in his book Buddha’s Brain, the self is like a unicorn – it’s not an independently existing thing, but merely patterns in the mind and brain. It’s “continually constructed, deconstructed and constructed again.” Nothing solid about it.
By recognizing this, we can begin to experience some freedom. Seeing that our sense of self is based on our upbringing, our culture, our experiences, and the people around us, we begin to recognize how elusive the “self” really is. We can begin to see our “self” more as a tool and a process, as the Insight meditation teacher Heather Sundberg puts it, than as a fixed entity.
And it is only by letting go of that constant need to define, represent, compare and judge ourselves that we can truly relax and be ourselves – whoever that may be at any given moment.
I’ve written almost nothing on this blog since the inauguration of Donald Trump. Partly I think it’s because I’ve been so outwardly focused – fixated on the daily, minute-by-minute news of the disturbing, twisted, often absurd machinations of this new administration that I haven’t taken the time to stop and think much. When I have, usually because all my anger and frustration has exhausted me, what surfaces is primarily a sense of defeat, resignation, and depression.
The other reason I’m not writing is because I’ve been seeing the world around me as rapidly deteriorating, so everything else seems trivial. I just haven’t been able to muster the energy to think of something positive or hopeful or encouraging to write about. And nobody needs more bad news to read. There’s plenty of that available already.
Of course, when I do stop to think about it, I’m not actually seeing the world deteriorate. I’m reading, watching and hearing about it. It’s the focus of the news, of my Facebook and Twitter feeds, of ordinary conversation with friends, neighbors and colleagues.
What I’m actually seeing on a day-to-day basis hasn’t changed that much — except maybe the buds bursting up in February or the snowstorms in mid-March, which were definitely disturbing. Still, most of what I’m seeing is exactly the same as what I saw when Barack Obama was president: the same buildings and trees outside my window, the same people and dogs on the street, save for a new baby or puppy that’s recently arrived. My physical and visual world, my own life circumstances, haven’t really changed much.
Of course, lots of other peoples lives have changed, especially if they’re undocumented immigrants or Muslim, and I recognize that I’ve been shielded from the immediate effects of Trump’s policy changes by my relative social privilege.
Still, it’s amazing how much our consciousness and sense of the world and of ourselves in it can change based on what we’re reading, watching or listening to: the material our minds consume. On the one hand, it’s wonderful that we can access news from all over the world in such an up-to-the-minute way and know what our government, for example, is doing. On the other hand, having that option can really take us away from ourselves, what we want and care about, and from doing the things and living our lives in ways consistent with that.
In “Life Without Principle,” Thoreau wrote: “We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention.”
As the Buddha taught, what we frequently dwell upon determines the shape of our mind.
Many of us can’t just turn off the news, of course, and I don’t think we should. We need to know what’s happening in our political system, and the real consequences it has for millions of people, and for the entire planet, to even begin to try to change it. But taking time to reconnect with ourselves is also key to staying in touch with what’s important to us and to recognizing our own inner strength and resources, despite the mayhem in the political world. It’s also key to refueling — we need to re-connect with a sense of peace, with joy, with beauty, in order to replenish the energy it takes to continue fighting against these larger forces that threaten to overtake our better natures.
In Harper’s this month, Walter Kirn writes of driving from Western Montana to Las Vegas, without looking at or listening to the news the entire time. He finds it eye-opening, revitalizing, and oddly political: “In a supposedly post-factual time, deep attention to the passing scene is a radical act, reviving one’s sense that the world is real, worth fighting for, and that politics is a material phenomenon, its consequences embedded in things seen.”
I learned recently of the death of an acquaintance, someone I knew slightly but not well, and it struck me that even in our occasional encounters, he had touched me deeply. I remember him as open, kind, gentle and wise — all qualities I admire, and would like to have more of.
We don’t tend to think about it, but we influence other people all the time, through even our most ordinary interactions. Taking time away from the public drama to reconnect with ourselves seems key to understanding that, and to reminding us that we can choose how we relate to the world. And that’s really the only way we can even attempt to leave our best impression on it.
On Staying Hopeful
Last week was tough. Not just because many of us were returning to work after a holiday break, but for anyone who works in social justice advocacy, the air is thick with fear, apprehension, lingering shock and disappointment. What will this new administration bring? So far, the signs are ominous.
I was reading through news stories about refugees and asylum seekers the other day, trying to help my organization figure out how to combat some of the misinformation that’s been spreading like wildfire through cyberspace. It didn’t take long before I was depressed and discouraged. The distortions, the nastiness, the sheer vitriol I found targeted at some of the most unfortunate and vulnerable people in the world these days was beyond disheartening. It made me feel like there’s this huge dark cloud amassing and expanding over the country, threatening a deluge of hatred and anger and violence that could wipe out many of the fundamental values and assumptions we’d come to rely on.
What I’m describing, of course, is a sense of despair, and I see it all around me these days. Many of us seem to be moving through a haze, lamenting the times, and, especially during the holidays, drinking away our sorrows with like-minded friends and neighbors, as if we could put the disappointment of 2016 behind us.
It’s a mood that’s easy to slip into, but really, a luxury we cannot afford. Yes, the idea of Donald Trump as president and Jeff Sessions as attorney general and Rex Tillerson as secretary of state seemed so absurd and beyond our imagination just a few short months ago that it’s hard to know how to respond now. But merely indulging or consoling ourselves with the latest spikes in the stock market isn’t the way to go. There’s a lot each of us can do towards shoring up the values and principles and social compacts many of us still believe in, and while some of it may be painful and tedious and frustrating, it’s still worth the effort. Tempting as it may be, we can’t just check out now.
It can be helpful to remember that progress never happens in a steady upwards trajectory. There are always discouraging dips and setbacks and stumbles along the way. And real, lasting gains can require decades or longer to take root. Think of gay marriage, an idea barely considered 20 years ago, or the fact that 100 years ago women still weren’t trusted with the right to vote. Just 50 years before that, Africans could still be seized, shipped, sold and bought as slaves in this country. We’ve come a long way.
In her 2016 book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit likens social change to the emergence of mushrooms in a forest:
After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork – or underground work – often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.
The ugly expressions of racism, sexism and xenophobia so easily found online these days can make it seem as if it’s impossible to change anyone’s mind, especially as people seem to just immerse themselves in opinions they already agree with, the ideas and beliefs bouncing around in their chosen echo chamber getting louder and uglier as they reverberate.
We do, however, operate in a larger culture, and political system, and slowly, over time, progress can and often does occur.
As Solnit puts it:
Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power…
Positive change is not inevitable, though. We’re seeing some pretty ugly mushrooms sprout right now. Hope is “not a substitute for action, only a basis for it,” Solnit reminds us. “Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act.”
That’s a sentiment I’ll be holding onto. None of us alone can change the current political climate, but we all can find ways to contribute to its change. Yes, we also have to take breaks, to turn off the news, appreciate silence and take care of ourselves. But this is not the time to retreat and accept the status quo. Those dark clouds will need a strong wind to disperse them.
There’s a classic zen story that goes like this:
A young man approached a great master and asked to become his student. The student asked the master: “How long will it take me to become a master?”
“15 years,” replied the master.
“So long?” asked the young man, looking disappointed.
The master reconsidered. “Well, in your case, 20 years.”
The young man was alarmed. He persisted. “What if I devote every waking hour to learning this art?” he demanded.
“25 years,” replied the master.
“You’re talking nonsense,” the student said, angry now. “How can it be that if I work harder, it will take longer to achieve my goal?”
The master replied: “If you have one eye fixed on your destination, then you have only one eye left with which to find your way.”
I love this story, which I heard here from the Insight Meditation teacher Deborah Ratner Helzer, because I think it encapsulates a dilemma many of us face. On the one hand, we want to achieve great things, and set high expectations for ourselves; on the other, all those expectations can become exhausting and ultimately, demoralizing.
There’s a whole success industrial complex of coaches and self-help gurus that tells us high expectations are important to increasing our chances of success. Studies show that children expected to do poorly at school generally do, for example, while those expected to excel are more likely to get A’s and please their teachers and parents. And some psychologists claim high expectations make us more likely to pursue challenges, which raises our sense of effectiveness and ultimately, our levels of happiness.
I understand that logic, but it also makes me uncomfortable. I can feel my heart start to race and my stomach tie into knots as I scramble to think of what more I should be trying to accomplish, what I haven’t done already, and whether I really can or even want to achieve these new heights I ought to be reaching for.
I think part of the problem is that many of these studies conflate self-confidence with high expectations. The two concepts are actually very different.
It’s one thing to feel confident that you can take on a challenge. It’s quite another to expect yourself to succeed at something particular before you’ve even tried it. That assumes an entire path to getting there, which may or may not turn out to be realistic, or the path you even want to take.
Expectations are a fixed destination determined at the beginning, on which we keep one eye at all times. This can distract us from the learning and flexibility we need to adapt to conditions, which will inevitably change along the way. Expectations are, by their very nature, set points identified early on based on external benchmarks held up as representations of “success.”
The word “expectation” itself derives from the Latin for “to look out for,” which suggests a looking outward for something that will happen to us, rather than inward for something we can do. In Italian, the verb “aspettare” can mean to expect, but it primarily means “to wait.” It’s a reminder that expectations are something we watch and wait for – not something we ourselves can make happen. So rather than motivating, expectations can be, by their very nature, dis-empowering. And if we keep striving to attain something that’s out of our control, we’re likely to end up feeling defeated.
Still, we need to have goals and a direction if we want to accomplish anything, including continuing to grow and learn and feel competent — all basic human needs. I prefer to think of these as aspirations rather than expectations. To aspire is to “direct one’s hopes or ambitions toward achieving.” It’s more about setting a direction than about reaching a particular endpoint.
Interestingly, “aspire” comes from a Latin word meaning “to breathe.” Setting a direction allows us to let go of worrying about the outcome, and leaves us room to breathe, and fully experience the journey, along the way. Aspirations acknowledge the unpredictability of the journey, and the larger context we’re operating within. They don’t make demands that things go a particular way, they simply point us onward in a particular direction we’ve chosen. The final destination, or achievement, which will depend on circumstances as they arise.
This way of setting goals also turns out to be more consistent with scientific evidence about the kinds of goals that lead to true happiness. According to Self-Determination Theory, we’re intrinsically motivated to pursue goals that satisfy three basic psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness and competence. That is, we’re more likely to persist with our goals if we’ve chosen them ourselves, they connect us to others, and they give us an opportunity to demonstrate our competence or skill in some way.
Those who choose goals set by someone else and motivated by external rewards, on the other hand, such as wealth, image and status, are less likely to stick with them. They’re also likely to suffer a lot more striving to achieve them, since, as psychologists Kenneth Sheldon and Tim Kasser have found, motivation by external factors tends to distract people from their underlying psychological needs and encourage people to engage in pursuits they don’t inherently enjoy.
Achieving goals set by external expectations is also often self-defeating, because we’re less likely to be happy even if we achieve those goals. And repeatedly striving for something that we believe will make us happy but doesn’t can lead to what psychologist Martin Seligman called “learned helplessness” – the belief that there’s nothing we can do to improve our situation. That can lead to depression.
Of course, knowing what we value, making our own choices and being comfortable with them isn’t easy, especially when we’re bombarded with other people’s ideas of success and expectations for us. And that inevitably influences – especially when we’re younger – the expectations we set for ourselves.
It influences our expectations of others, and of the world around us, too. Yet we can’t control what other people – or governments, or companies, or institutions – do. We can only do our part, as best we know how: with positive intentions, awareness of our immediate impact and careful consideration of the potential long-term consequences of our actions. If we expect things to happen according to our desires and our timetable, we’re likely to get frustrated and give up. I see this in clients – and have felt it myself – over and over again. Instead, we need to set our course based on our current values, and pause to fully appreciate any progress we make along the way.
To condense this all into a handy reminder, I’ve broken it down this way:
To aspire is to:
Accept where/how/who you are
Set self-concordant goals
Practice being present
Intend your best self
Re-calibrate your goals along the way
Enjoy the ride.
Rebecca Solnit captures beautifully the spirit of this idea in her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost:
How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.
Separating the Normal from the Natural
I’m getting ready to head out on a 7-day silent meditation retreat, and I’ve been feeling a little weird about it.
So I really appreciated coming across Paul Graham’s essay, The Acceleration of Addictiveness, which in large part explains why I’m doing this. A computer programmer and founder of the startup funder Y Combinator, Graham — who’s also a wonderful essayist — explains that while technology has brought us many great things, it’s also made our world much more addictive.
For example: “Food has been transformed by a combination of factory farming and innovations in food processing into something with way more immediate bang for the buck, and you can see the results in any town in America. Checkers and solitaire have been replaced by World of Warcraft and FarmVille. TV has become much more engaging, and even so it can’t compete with Facebook.”
The result is that we’re constantly being drawn toward things that technology has allowed some big company to profit from by capturing our attention. The consequences range from obesity to ADHD to home-grown terrorism.
As individuals, it means we each have to pay that much more attention to where we’re putting our attention, and to whether it’s what we really want to be focusing on. This is what meditation is all about.
Graham calls it the difference between what’s “normal” and what’s “natural”. It may be “normal” to binge-watch your favorite series on Netflix, but sitting on a couch for hours on end (and likely adding some junk food and alcohol to the mix) is hardly what our bodies were made for. After a while, it doesn’t feel very good.
On the other hand, refraining from “normal” things like television and processed food and electronics, even briefly, can make you seem pretty weird. Already, “someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US,” Graham writes, predicting technology will only accelerate the trend. “You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don’t think you’re weird, you’re living badly.”
I take some comfort from that. Living the life you choose requires turning away from lots of things the modern world is trying to convince you you should do, mostly because someone’s making a huge profit off it. Thinking and living independently is hardly “normal” these days, but it does tend to feel a whole lot better and more “natural”.
I’ll have to remind myself of that when I’m sitting in silent meditation next week and inevitably start wondering what the hell I’m doing there.