On hoping that there’s still a little bit of Don Quixote within.

I’d follow my therapist into hell (and apparently we may just go there in our next session), but I clash with her one area: that of managing expectations. Much of my restored sanity and contentment has come by lowering my expectations of myself. I quit graduate school, I decided not to pursue Clarion this year, and I’ve committed myself to my database/IT career for the next 5-10 years, at least. But I keep wondering, at what price, this paradise?

It’s amazing how much expectations can impact happiness. In Mormonism, this misery was represented by the wide gulf between my potential as a God in Embryo and my pitiful actual performance as an earthbound sinner. Jesus is supposed to make up this difference, but Jesus did not manifest, and yes, I prayed sincerely and read my scriptures regularly, so thankyouforasking. The best example of this was my sincere belief, reinforced by my indoctrination, that I could convert thousands in Japan at a time when the average Mormon missionary was lucky to have a couple of converts. I didn’t think about numbers much, but I think it says something that I felt a failure as a focused, rules-keeping, hard-working, genuinely-caring missionary who helped bring perhaps a dozen souls to Christ. The fact that I did not have the faith of famous Mo baptizers of old proved that I didn’t quite measure up. Throw a few more roles and heroic expectations in there: parent, spouse, home/visiting-teacher, etc., and to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, there’s humiliation galore.

It’s difficult too, when someone with expectations of eternity loses this long view. Suddenly 70 years seems awfully short. Worse, it’s easy to rationalize things like, “what’s this life worth when the sun’s going to devour the planet in five billion years?” After dealing with this depressing view, I hit reset, and I’m trying to approach life with more of a “wow, there’s actually a little bit of life in this deadly universe” and “my actions may not mean much on a universal scale in five billion years from now, but they sure seem to make a difference in a few lives of people living with me on this earth, in this moment.” In this case shifting expectations can be therapeutic.

But at some level, I want my misery. I don’t want to lower my expectations. I’m fine with giving up eternity, but I don’t want to give up some essential core of my being. I don’t want to lose myself entirely in others. There’s a poem that used to be my personal mantra, from my missionary days:

Help me to live from day to day
In such a self-forgetful way
That even as I kneel to pray
My prayer shall be for others.

Let self be crucified and slain
And buried deep and all in vain
May efforts be to rise again
Except to live for others.

Fuck that. I want to serve others, but not at the risk of burying myself. I am not ready for the bitter cup. I’m not ready to hang on my cross. But I don’t want to succeed at the expense of others, either.

I want to fight for this bit of myself, the writer-activist-dreamer-poet-prophet me who always seems ready to be gobbled up by life, however irrational, however troubled, however unsatisfied this internal schemer may forever leave me. But I have my doubts, that maybe I should inject some long-lasting Novocaine into my ambitions and lofty goals, and that I will drool happily in some quiet corner in the asylum of life. In this moment, I find unsettling comfort in the Langston Hughes poem:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I wish I could wrap this post up neatly. But the story’s still being written. This is one of my greatest ongoing personal struggles (one that I have the luxury to have, which adds to the guilt). I know that it’s a glum, emo piece of writing, but I hope it makes sense to someone out there. The message is a plea for empathy and understanding, and it’s rolled up and I’m throwing it out into the water:


  1. First off — I’m a chronic lurker, too seldom chiming in on the intertubes when things make me feel or think. That probably reflects my own expectations management issues :). Anyway — I love this blog, have been reading for a long time, and you often touch bits of my heart in important ways. To wit, this post.

    I think I have some of the same problem. I’m good at managing my expectations. I made a life habit of it, defining them down so that I couldn’t hurt. Not that it worked, much, but there you go. Certainly, it probably let me hang on during some difficult times (all coping strategies that keep you alive, a therapist once told me, are to be loved, even if now you have to let them go).

    That, I think, was the problem for me — I got too good at it, the coping strategies became toxic, life-killing. And there’s this big part of my heart that burns, that wants to burn so fierce that I’ll ignite the world. That wants to jump into life deeply and fully, live loud, be there, present, alive, real, physical. It’s my version of your “writer-activist-dreamer-poet-prophet me.”

    Better, in some ways, the Epic Faceplant, than to just be a shadow huddling in the corner. Yet I tremble for the thought of the Epic Faceplant, the pain that must come of really living.

    I don’t know how similar our paths are here — but for me, the problem is a lack of experience. Because I have spent so many years with a particular set of coping strategies ala expectation management, I have trouble with judging things. What is really living “outloud and physical?” What is daring and what is merely foolhardy? When is a choice to defer or manage an expectation rational, and when is it merely Novocaine? It doesn’t help that I know, deep down, that even if I had a better sense of those answers, I’d still make mistakes, that mistakes are just part of being human.

    I want to end with one small thought, one I have to keep reminding myself of. You write: Fuck that. I want to serve others, but not at the risk of burying myself. I am not ready for the bitter cup. I’m not ready to hang on my cross. I think you have a big part of the answer, right there, not that it’s easy — having compassion for oneself.

    Anyway. Thank you — for sharing, for the inspiration, and for touching this soul.

  2. Oh god John, I know (almost) exactly what you mean.

    Learning to see life in a completely different way than I was taught (nay, programmed) to see it for 90% of my life has been incredibly difficult and often depressing. But at the same time, knowing who I am for the first time in my life, and having shed the guilt and fear of my past, life seems to have so much more meaning for me than it ever did before.

  3. I have this problem too. I’m surrounded by highly successful people, and feel like I’m a failure unless I succeed at giant, impossible dreams. On the one hand, I don’t want to throw in the towel and say I can’t do it, but on the other hand, sometimes I feel like “living in my imagined future” causes me unhealthy levels of stress and keeps me from relaxing to appreciate the joys of my real life. It’s hard to manage expectations, to decide what you really want from life, and what you want to strive for…

  4. John

    Thanks for responding. You are all lovely, beautiful people, each one of you.

    Gregory, this bit spoke to me:

    That, I think, was the problem for me — I got too good at it, the coping strategies became toxic, life-killing. And there’s this big part of my heart that burns, that wants to burn so fierce that I’ll ignite the world. That wants to jump into life deeply and fully, live loud, be there, present, alive, real, physical.

    I’m going to try to trade my raisins in for a faceplant. 🙂

  5. Meryl

    Ahh, is this what you were talking about last night? I should have asked for more details. This is a beautiful post.
    I think I have a slightly different take on the problem, but I’ll have to think more to figure out how that is. I don’t really have anything to add beyond the comments you’ve already received, so I’ll stop now 🙂

  6. Denine

    Like Gregory, I often read but seldom comment. In my case it’s because I’m not comfortable that the written word will convey my meaning as much as a nice chat will when we some day manage to sit down for a nice cuppa together.
    But know that I am cheering you on. Expectations can and should be examined and revised, both lowered and raised as circumstances change. It is very comforting to know that you live your life very consciously. And to me, living life consciously counts big time.

  7. First off, you end with a colon. Something I do not recall having ever seen. It’s an epic cliff that bids the reader — come, leap with me into the fateful unknown and we shall soar. Did you imagine that a single char could suggest so much?

    There was a time when I did Ritalin. I lost weight. I was disciplined. Iwas able to complete long chains of mundane tasks. I felt a cherished part of my soul (for lack of a better word) was bound and gagged and buried six feet under.

    I stopped taking Ritalin and have been dragging my family through the various rooms of hell ever since. But the drama and the moments of ecstacy and the rush of wind and adrenaline:

  8. What are your ambitions and your lofty goals? (here’s me, the pragmatist, asking what you want to achieve and saying let’s make a plan to get you there).

    Have you ever watched the movie “A Raisin in the Sun”? If not, I’d love to watch it together sometime.

  9. I’ve tried the way of living up to expectations: my career choice was motivated, in large part, by the desire to please my father and to be, for once, pragmatic. I have three academic degrees, a Secondary Education credential (now lapsed), had a few things published, etc., etc. The grief and despair weren’t avoided or deceived; they just waited until I was worn out. You are, I think, choosing a better path, trying to discover what success means to you before you embrace it.

    To throw in a bit of exegesis. Jesus said, “The poor you always have with you, but me you do not have.” I’ve always thought that this means that one can and should address the needs of the community: there will always be opportunities to do so. But taking care and nurturing oneself is vital as well. So the Body of Christ, which is to say everyone, the deeply personal “I,” is deserving of support, sustenance, and care. For how can we have success, unless we take the time to learn its meaning? And have the strength and health to use it?

  10. Rich

    John, I wrote a long post, then deleted it, fearing I would only add to your current angst. I’m sorry I don’t have much to add other than this — you have many friends in cyberspace that appreciate you — not your achievements or lack thereof — just YOU. I truly hope you can find peace (and still get that Sci-fi novel of yours in my hands one day!) ;o) Meanwhile, I would encourage you to take up one (additional) selfish pursuit (if you’re not already) — spend at least an hour or two a week surfing — it’s amazing what a little saltwater up the nose can do for greater balance and peace. To echo one of my favorite bumper stickers: “There is no problem an hour of surfing won’t cure”…

  11. I’ve kind of come to terms with some of these things by taking a sort of (and I do mean “sort of”) Zen approach.

    I realized at some point that I was incredibly privileged to even worry about whether or not I’d ever achieve all the expectations I had for myself.

    Also, I met Lyn, the minister at the UUCIF who got her MDiv when she was sixty. So I’ve learned to be patient and accepting of where I am right now and decided that while I’m letting go of the expectation to fulfill these goals, I’m not letting go of the goals per se. I have no idea what the future holds. So I try not to worry about it as much.

    Lastly, I realized how completely insignificant I am to the overall scheme of things. Even if I eventually write that novel, become that professor, sing that song or cover that groundbreaking story (yay journalism! 😉 , I’ll still be forgotten. I’m not immortal. I’m significant to a small number of people. And those people are significant to me.

    Anyway, for all their fatalism, these things have actually given me hope that it’s never too late to give up until I’m actually dead or incapacitated in some major way. Lower my expectations? Absolutely. Compromise? Sometimes. Give up? No way.


  12. A wise person on a message board said this in response to a posting of mine about control and expectations (letting things go).

    I struggle with this sometimes, too. First, if we set up the problem as having all control or no control it is much harder to solve. But if you look at control on a continuum, it is easier. Some things we have no control over; other things a little control (or influence); yet others more; and a few we have nearly complete control.

    I have found it helpful to take index cards and write on them statement of things going on in my life I want to change and then sort them into piles of “No control” “Some control” “A lot of Control” On back of the cards, write possible responses in each of these situations. You find that even in many situations where you have no control of the situation, you can find a helpful response, even if it to make yourself feel better while you ride it out. In situations where you have more control, you can do more active things.

    I like the idea of a continuum for our lives, our dreams – how much we have control over. The day I apply and tour colleges I have a lot more control over which college I go to than halfway through my education (for example). I like the idea of this being a process – of determining what our dreams are, and readjusting them as life happens. Because life does happen. There’s a certain amount of luck or just the random nature of chaos.

    It doesn’t make sense to suggest that we have NO control over anything – or that we have total control.

    Instead of a dream deferred, I like to think of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now.
    Tears and fears and feeling proud
    To say I love you right out loud
    Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
    I’ve looked at life that way

    But now old friends are acting strange
    They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
    Well somethings lost, but somethings gained
    In living every day

    I’ve looked at life from both sides now
    From win and lose and still somehow
    It’s lifes illusions I recall
    I really dont know life at all

    I don’t know, it is sort of ambiguous – but I like the song because so much of life and love is a mixture – it’s not black and white.

  13. My mentor at school has been telling me, “don’t should on yourself”, something I’m slowly learning to do. I think it’s generally the case that one doesn’t even get to law school without being an overachiever who expects nothing less than excellence from oneself. Which can lead to heartache. I wish you well in whatever it is that you choose to do and I encourage you to reach high, regardless of your expectations.

  14. John…I’ve found that lowering expectations is one of my coping mechanisms. Certainly, it is one of the things that got me through my mother’s illness and passing. Not any lowering of expectations for the outcome of my mother’s illness – after a certain point, there was no question of what that outcome would eventually be. Often, to quote Tom Petty, “the waiting is the hardest part.” Rather, it was a lowering of expectations for myself and what I could or could not do in regards to my mother’s illness specifically as well as regarding my life in general. That was difficult for me, because I have a history of being kind of a control freak.

    I’ve also found over the years that lowering my expectations about my own life has often been my way of taking a break, rather than a “giving up” or “giving in” on a permanent basis. I’ve given up on writing two or three times in my life, loudly and publicly, as an unrealistic dream that was just making me miserable and getting in the way of doing more achievable things. Yet, here I am now, making (at least part of) my living as a writer and working on a novel, one of my biggest and long-lived expectations of something I must do in my life.

    So, what I would suggest is that you not look at your recent decisions as closing a door, but as merely propping it mostly closed but still ajar while you take care of yourself and your more immediate needs.

    As for dealing with the expectations others have for me, I’m probably in a bit of a different place from where you are, John, since I don’t have a spouse and children to think of. But, one of the revelations I have received out of the experience of taking care of my mother through her illness and then dealing with her death and its aftermath, is that living up to others’ expectations of/for me doesn’t matter nearly as much as I’ve always assumed that it does. I can’t be everything to everyone. Realizing that, I think, has been very good for my mental health.

    I don’t know if any of this makes sense. It’s early. I guess what I’m trying to say, John, is that however much time we have here, and irrespective (is that even a word?) of whether there is anything else afterward, all we can do is what we can do and to beat oneself up for not doing more, whether “more” is what we expect of ourselves or what others expect of us, is not a useful activity. Take each day as it comes and do your best; that is all anyone can expect. Even yourself.

    That does not preclude keeping that fire in the belly some of us seem to need…it just means that it can be banked sometimes when the heat gets too high, sheltered until we are ready to face the fire again.

  15. G

    “but I hope it makes sense to someone out there”

    yes. it does.
    (quite apparently )

    hope you feel the tides turning soon.

  16. I’ve heard it said that if you can think of 20 other people in your life you care about, add one to that number to get 21. You are on equal ground with those others in your life – you are just as important as they are, so you have to treat yourself that way.

    The religious notion of “forgetting oneself” or “dying to self” is an unclear way to describe a balanced person who has a heart for others but does not neglect themselves in the process.

    I often struggled with a life filled with expectations that I wasn’t meeting. I realized later that I suffered from a bad [Christian] belief that what I did mattered to God in terms of him liking me more or less. He didn’t. He was crazy about me all the time – even when I was at my worst.

    It’s so freeing to relax and not have to perform to feel excepted and loved. Then doing good things can be done with joy rather than out of obligation or fear or trying to win points or to be noticed. Finally believing that made a big difference in my life. It sounds like you are arriving at that conclusion as well. Hopefully you can internalize it — then that thinking becomes second nature.

  17. Theo


    This post (among others on the site) struck a chord in me as I stumbled across your site at 5am on a Wednesday morning; the exact path of my wee-hour wandering across the Interwebs escapes me at the moment, but somehow here I ended up, and here I stayed for a while, and here I will add my general musings.

    I express a great deal of kinship in the thoughts you share about deferring dreams as a coping mechanism, about dealing with expectations regardless of the source (and in my case, I’m pretty sure that God, even the God of my LDS faith, likes me fine no matter what — the expectations I face spring more from within than without).

    I feel like, as with many things, there is a balance to be struck between the Epic Faceplant and the sessions of drooling Novocaine-induced bliss. I’m not sure one of necessity excludes the other, or at least, does not do so in perpetuity. I’ve had occasion recently to encounter a great many people who loudly proclaim that they “live life to the fullest!” and that they “work hard and play hard!” and they “love life and don’t waste a single minute!” and my immediate response is that they are either lying to themselves (because nobody actually lives life to the “fullest,” else they would probably have already expired from sheer exhaustion), or they are missing out on a great deal of virtue that could be found by wasting a minute or two or ten or more by simply doing nothing, by being still, by considering their surroundings, whatever they may be. I knew a girl at college who was physically incapable of spending 30 minutes doing nothing at all. (It will probably not surprise you to learn that she was also the Relief Society president in the student ward.)

    I guess the sentiment I’m blundering toward is that the lowering of expectations and the deferring of dreams need not be thought of as the price of paradise, but rather the necessary re-evaulation that assists a person in identifying which Epic Faceplants are worth the attempt, when the time comes.

    I ached to read of your struggle with your expectations as a missionary or at other times in your LDS sojourn. (Let that not come across as condescending and pitying as it sounds; the ache is for the finding of similar feelings within myself as much as for your younger self.) I am glad to know that you have come to accept that serving others and serving yourself do not always have to be mutually exclusive.

    It is part of the beauty of humanity that the good of one self can directly affect and contribute to and be the good of another… but too often this concept is expressed in terms of callow unselfishness and petty altruism. The principle can work both ways: being good to one’s self increases one’s capacity for goodness. Lost in the easy LDS answer of serving God by serving fellow men is the idea that you are one of those fellow men, too, fully as worthy and as deserving of godly love as any other. (This concept is too often subjugated within the Church and I feel only adds to the pressure of expectation that many experience, that the emphasis on serving others is a tacit indication that our selves are not valuable enough to be served.)

    Anyway… don’t take it too hard on yourself. I hope you won’t, and I doubt you will.

    In closing, I wish to thank you for your writings, your willingness to share personal experiences, and the general tone and deportment of this site in general. If there is such a thing as an intelligent, compassionate, skeptical, yet faithful Latter-day Saint, that would be the way I identify myself. I frequently wish to learn of the experiences of others, inside and outside the Church, that I may better understand my own thoughts and feelings, but too often I am immediately turned off by the combative, bitter and resentful tone of many ex-Mormon and anti-Mormon sites, or the oversimplified parrot talk of mainstream Mormon culture, or the snark and sarcasm of the middle ground. But I find such sentiments largely absent from your writing, and I’d like to thank you for that. Your perspective and your open and gracious nature are much appreciated.

    Besides, anyone who can appreciate a good “O Ry’leh?” joke is pretty all right in my book. Thanks again.

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