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: