Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Expecting the Best

I mentioned in my last post that I "expect the best" from my children, and since Donna asked about it I see the need to clarify . . .

Does "expect the best" mean that I literally anticipate that they will always be little angels, full of compassion and goodness? Well, no, that would just be stupid. Not only would it be completely contrary to experience, it would also be a recipe for perpetual anger and frustration. All resentment ultimately originates from unmet expectations; you can't feel resentment unless you started out with some expectation that has been thwarted. In that sense, the only sane perspective is to hold as few expectations as possible. As my mom is fond of saying: "An optimist can never be pleasantly surprised."

Note that this most emphatically does not mean you should "expect the worst." Pessimism (i.e. "I'm expected the worst") can quickly shade into cynicism (i.e. "I'm expecting the worst, dammit.") "Expecting the worst" is a recipe for neurosis. Anything that goes well is poisoned by the expectation that it won't last. It means having to sweat every last detail (even the ones you could reasonably expect to go well) because you don't believe anything can happen well without your direct intervention or supervision. Pessimism is exhausting.

So, expecting too much is stupid, and expecting too little is stupid. Expectation in general is unadvisable. So what does that leave us? In a word: Stoicism (in the classical Roman sense, not the macho "feel no pain" sense). The Stoics recognized that the only sane attitude to hold in the face of reality is acceptance. Life is beautiful; let it in. Death is inevitable; so why act like you thought you were going to live forever? Acceptance allows you to be fully present in the moment.

So if expectation is so bad, what the heck do I mean by "expected the best" from my children? Fundamentally, I think high expectations is a core aspect of respect. Having high expectations is one the ways you can acknowledge someone's fullest capacity. It's easier to see this by looking at its opposite: what happens when you have low expectations of someone. Suppose someone, in word or deed, indicates to you that they have a low expectation for your capacity: "Oh, I don't think you can lift that." "I don't think you could keep up with us." "Here, you take the easy puzzle." If someone does that to us a little, we feel slighted; if they do it a lot, we feel mortally offended. "Screw you. I'm better than that." Conservatives have spoken in recent years about the "soft bigotry of low expectations," and I believe it. Nobody likes to be treated like children . . . even children.

Conversely, when you have high expectations of people, they feel acknowledged and flattered, and they usually do there best to meet those expectations. (Kohn might argue that people only do that because they have been conditioned by conditional love to seek to meet others expectations. There might be some truth in that, but I seriously doubt that's the whole story.) Most people, whether loved conditionally or unconditionally, like being thought of as capable, and do what they can to perpetuate that state. Note that this is not conditional love -- it's not "I won't love you if you don't clean up your room" or even "I'll love you more if you do clean up your room." It's simply: "Let's go clean your room."

My own mother summarized it this way: "As much as is possible, without going beyond their understanding, speak to children as you would speak to adults. They will see it (correctly) as a sign of respect, and they will usually acknowledge it and reaffirm it by giving you respect."


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