My husband and I recently returned from time away together. We were away from our people, places and routines and around a variety of different folks in a variety of situations. At the time, I found a handful of things striking about my experience of being in the company of strangers (with the one I love). As I’ve allowed my experience to percolate a bit, a deeper understanding and appreciation of the gifts I received from those encounters has emerged.
The gift that keeps bubbling up for me, and the one I’d like to explore here, is the most delicious gift of freedom from expectations. On our trip, each encounter with “the stranger” was unburdened by weighty expectations. I had few, if any, preconceived notions about what the person who stood or sat beside (or in front) of me “should” or “shouldn’t” do. I had no well-rehearsed story about what “this behavior” or “that behavior” by him or her meant about them, or about me, or our “relationship.” I noticed I was pulled into the present moment to listen more fully, when I didn’t think I already knew someone’s tale. I noticed I met generosity from strangers with deeper gratitude, because I didn’t expect it. I noticed the open face of another’s smile was enough…and so was the closed-off face…as was the face of someone lost in deep contemplation. Every bit of it was enough. Because I held so few expectations about each encounter, I was able to be okay with and more fully present with everything.
Just as I had relatively few expectations for the people I bumped into, I felt the freedom of being around people who had few, if any, expectations or rutted stories about me. If the beauty of the surroundings left me mute in awe, the stranger next to me likely wasn’t wondering why I wasn’t my “normal” chatty self. The weight of “needing” to meet expectations, to please, or to present a unified, overly predictable storied-self was lifted. Choice was fresh and unencumbered. I noticed I was able to more fully listen to my own preferences in the moment and move, with spontaneity, toward them. I noticed I was more able to be still and enjoy whatever experience I was having, because I wasn’t spending energy contemplating how to meet another’s expectations. I noticed when I felt moved to do something kind or generous, it sprung from somewhere tender and deep rather than from a sense of obligation.
Carrying that very small travel bag of expectations for others and being unburdened of the loads of thoughts about others’ expectations of me, seemed to open up room for large quantities of curiosity, vitality and joyfulness. This unburdening also made way for sweet and authentic connections with people, which were absent a layered story of past or future.
Our trip and all this freedom brought to mind the idea of “the escape fantasy.” I’ve heard variations of escape fantasies often in my work (and sometimes in my head!). You know the ones, the “I wish I could get into my car and go where no one knows my name”…”where I could hide out”…”where I could begin again.” In Sandra Breathnach’s book, “Simple Abundance” she explores this idea of a desire to escape in an entry entitled “Fried or Scrambled?.” In her writing, she identified the torn, weary feeling of not being able to do it all and noted the escape fantasy as a “red flag that tells us that real life has become unmanageable.” She writes, “You won’t have to run away if you can learn to just say enough, enough, enough. And mean it.”
I agree with Sandra. And yet, what if it’s most often the weightiness of expectations that has us clamoring for the escape hatch? What if this desire for escape has less to do with the tasks on our to do list and more to do with our intense labor (and preoccupation) with adding the “right (expected) tasks” and checking off those tasks…and living our whole life, in ways that we think our people (and our people’s people) might expect? What if we could tell ourselves “enough, enough, enough” of believing the story about our need to meet others’ expectations. What if we could unburden ourselves a bit from the idea that we even know what others expect of us most of the time. What if we could check in with ourselves and look at our own values and preference and not so often feel the need to run it through committee? And what if we could say to ourselves “enough, enough, enough, already” of meeting our people…our loves, through the lens of our own burdensome expectations. Wouldn’t it be precious gifts to them for us not to turn them into pack-mules, weighed down by our expectations?
What if we could drop out of expectations and stories and just be in this fresh moment together. What might that look like in “real life”? Maybe it would look like deep gratitude when my spouse empties the dishwasher, because I really wasn’t expecting him to do it. Maybe it would look like being fully present with my child and really listening, because I wouldn’t believe the story, that my mind tells me, that I already know what he’s going to say. Maybe it would look like staying home in my very own dear skin and with my very own rich experience, instead of spending precious moments living in my imagined story about what someone is probably thinking about what I’m wearing or how much I weigh. Maybe I would spend zero time contemplating what others might be expecting me to do in this situation or that spare bit of time. Or maybe it would look like passing a colleague in the hallway without an expectation that they smile at me; and maybe it would look like not falling into the judging internal story-scripting about what it means about them, or me or “our relationship” that they didn’t. Wouldn’t all that feel like escape from the unmanageable…like freedom…like deep connection?
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. -Rumi
Today may breathe more deeply, smile more often and feel more at home in your own life…