August 4th 2019 The Crisis of Dissappointed Expectations

Of all of the causes of human unhappiness and misery, having unrealistically high expectations of ourselves and others has to be right up there.

I actually have ongoing experience of this. For example, as a golfer, I know of at least one iron law; which is that anyone arriving at the golf course with high expectations of having a really good round is almost sure to leave five hours later with a heavy heart of unfulfilled dreams.

Moving along from the somewhat trivial to the definitely more serious, most families would know about the suffering that arises when our expectations of one another, or of ourselves, are too high. When my father died at age 45, one of my strong feelings was anger, because I felt that he had disappointed me in some significant ways. Now I know, on reflection, that he did his best as a parent, and that a lot of the problem lay in the simple fact that children routinely judge their parents to a higher standard than anyone else. Then again, we parents, if we are honest, have times when we are disappointed that our children have not lived up to the expectation we have of them. A friend of ours was recently in tears on the phone, having just been to the wedding of her youngest, only to be told that they want no further contact with her. The story is not all that uncommon, but it is not something that we could reasonably expect to happen to us.

And, listening to Hosea, it seems that even God is not immune from deep fatherly disappointment. The prophet laments the unfulfilled hopes and dreams of the divine parent, who is continually frustrated by the ungrateful responses of his beloved child Israel (specifically, in this case, Ephraim). I also have to confess an inappropriate response of amusement in the frustration of the divine parent, who cries "The more I called them, the more they went from me”. I got this image of a young couple down at the park with their newly-minted designer Cavoodle, trying to train the cavorting animal, only to see it do the opposite to what they ask of it. And who, having tried to raise a two year old, has not had a similar experience of what is now classified as "oppositional defiance”; as if ‘downright naughty’ is no longer a thing!

But it is not actually funny, and, for God, whose children are now adults, nothing seems to be working.

And if family is a fertile territory for the crisis of disappointed expectations, the Christian church is sometimes not far behind. If the recent terrifying revelations of child sexual abuse in public institutions tell us anything, they expose the underbelly of the supposed high morals of leadership and power.

And if the church is supposed to hold itself to a higher standard than its community, why is St Paul constantly writing to churches exhorting them to lift their game? For example, in today’s Epistle, the writer of Colossians, probably a disciple of St Paul, is making a strong statement to the newly-minted Christian community to live up to the standards of new life in Christ. "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” he cries. "Get rid of all those evil greedy behaviour you once indulged in”, he thunders. "You are now wearing new clothes, the uniform of those who have new life in Christ, so live up to the new dress code.”

This kind of exhortation is typical of Paul’s letters. To take just one other example, he tears shreds off the Christians Corinthians for the arrogant way in which some seemingly ‘lesser’ members are being treated, leading to the great chapter 13, which, when summarised says, "If you have no love you are nothing”.

The question is, why is all this admonishment necessary? Are these new communities of faith not alive in the spirit, strong and enthusiastic in the spiritual energy of the risen Christ? What is going on, if not the disappointment unreasonably high expectations

Family, the church community, and thirdly, the world of business. Perhaps our expectation here are lower than in other areas, but however low you go, there always seems to be a bank or some other powerful institution that gets itself under the limbo bar. Yet Jesus seems to expect that the successful entrepreneur, the so-called "rich fool” of Luke 13, who decides to hoard his expanding harvests rather than appreciate the much more enriching attitude of sharing his good fortune with others, should have been capable of making another more ethical choice!

Just another case of a crisis of disappointed expectations.

At this point it might be necessary to ask ourselves a few questions like, "how do we actually live hopefully in a world where crises of crashing standards seem to be more the rule and the exception” and a related one, "what do the scriptures have to say into this crisis by way of good news.

Some communities try weeding out those who are deemed to fall short. Someone told me recently about how they were excommunicated from their denomination because their daughter had an abortion after having been raped. As crass as this solution is, the other problem is, where do you stop weeding?

Another tactic can be to raise the volume of exhortation and threat in case people are not really hearing. Social media is good at this, but it only creates deeper divisions.

Then there are those who react to the crisis of disappointed expectations by giving up and opting out. I hear people responding to the crisis of global warming in this way. They say ‘We cannot do anything about it, so why bother?”

Given that none of the above really work in the long run, how might we respond differently? Where can we find liberation from the suffering of unrealistic expectations?

1. Give ourselves a reality check.

Anthony DeMello, in his book Awareness, tells the story of the villager who goes to check the fishing nets at the bank of the river, only to find a large poisonous snake ensnared in the mesh. As he looks around for a big stick to kill it, the snake says to him "Please do not kill me. I am not doing you any harm. If you untangle me I will be very grateful, and promise to keep the vermin in check around your food bins” "Oh no, says the villager. You are a poisonous snake. You are sure to bite me because that is what snakes do”. "I will certainly not do that’ says the snake. Please show mercy to a poor creature and let me go.” To cut a long story short, the villager carefully untangles the snake, which, as soon as it is free, bites the villager on the leg. "What did you do that for” cries the villager. "Well, I am a snake, and that is our nature this is what we do.”

De Mello’s point is that we should not be naďve about what people, including ourselves, are capable of. After all, we all still have the remains of a reptilian brain, and sometimes, especially when we are under stress, we react from our animal instinct instead of from our better, more civilised and redeemed nature. So, Just because a person professes a particular faith or philosophy does not necessarily mean that thy will behave in ways appropriate to that calling. This does not mean that we can never trust anyone; rather to be, as Jesus puts it, "wise as serpents and harmless as doves”.

2. Pay attention to our own expectations. Do not try to change ourselves or others, but simply observe. Observe ourselves as we react, respond, suffer in the light of our unfulfilled expectations. Exercise AWARENESS

3. Because energy follows attention, when we are focussed on what is actually happening rather than what we would hope or expect, we now have some resources to apply to the management of our own lives and behaviour.

4. Embrace the Good News. In Hosea, after God has finished lamenting the behaviour of His errant children, and coming to the point of acceptance of their oppositional behaviour, God demonstrates the deep wisdom that whatever happens, God’s response will be in accordance with God’s holy nature: "How can I give you up, Ephraim. How can I hand you over, O Israel? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger”. God will keep loving them anyway.

And so the prophet demonstrates the mature spiritual response to the suffering of disappointed expectations: to act out of one’s best nature, and so set the example.

Jesus put it this way- "Do to others as you would have them do to you”. He lived and died without any illusions about humanity’s ability to respond out of their better nature. He said, rather, "Father forgive them they do not know what they are doing.”

I entitled this address "The CRISIS of disappointed expectations” because, as well as being the place of struggle and suffering, it is also the place of opportunity. When we get a hold of this, it opens up the possibility and provides the energy to respond to old intractable problems in new and life-changing ways. I just want to finish with two sayings that have been with me for a long time, and have helped me face reality at important crossroads. The one is by Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt Therapy. He says "I am not here to live up to your expectations, and you are not here to love up to mine. If by chance we meet one another in a meaningful way, that is fine. If not, it cannot be helped”.

The other, of which I do not know the source, is this- "Don’t walk in front of me. I may not follow. Do not walk behind me. I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”


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