The Smile Reflex

There’s something about this experience called life that makes taking ourselves too seriously impossible.

We smile as a reflex response. It’s no different than our eye blinking when an object suddenly comes close, or our leg jerking when the doctor taps it with the rubber mallet, or our flinching at a loud noise nearby. Reflex responses. We can smile at something that just crossed our minds, at the sight of someone who walked through the door, at the soft play of candlelight on our lover’s face, at a child chasing a puppy…and so much more. There’s no need to think about smiling before we do it. In fact, the common way to refer to these instances is to say that ‘we caught ourselves smiling’. We realized we were smiling after we had smiled.

These are moments of appreciation…unscripted…unedited…uncensored…undeniable. They occur frequently and randomly everyday and everywhere. That’s part of their charm. And we smile. And, if we’re paying attention, we notice that we smiled.

A coworker brings you a cup of coffee made just right without you asking, there’s a tap on your shoulder and a stranger hands you the phone you had unknowingly left on the counter, a friend you’ve been wondering about happens to send you an email with a goofy picture that captures what you’ve always liked about them, the repair person tells you that everything is still covered under warranty, the song in the elevator reminds you of that time in Jamaica.

None of these moments can be planned or predicted. They simply show up. This is so obvious that it could be a bumper sticker:

The unexpected. It’s not what you saw coming.

Here’s what’s not so obvious: we love these moments. We feel most alive in those few seconds…before our brains kick in…before we cover up emotionally and guard ourselves again. We love surprises. We enjoy the non ordinary, the break in the routine, and the opportunity to improvise. We smile during these moments and we smile when we remember them. We tell stories about them. We enjoy them at a level that our thinking doesn’t understand. That our thinking won’t allow.

I’ve delved into this in greater detail in my book but the essence is: life itself is a risky business. When we strive to take the risk out of life, we take the life out of ourselves. We deaden ourselves with caution and control, with being rational at the exclusion of all else, with being consistent at the expense of being creative.

There’s a line from a song, “I want to live, not merely survive.”

In the moment of a reflex smile, we feel alive.

Awakening to ourselves can begin with these. We would do well to linger and not rush by those feelings, to savor them, to explore them without explaining them, to pay attention to what it was that we felt. It’s in those moments that we can discover who we truly are.

And smile.

 

 

 

 

 

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No Laughing Matter, the Ending

When we last left our couple, they were coming up on their three year anniversary. They had ‘settled in’ to their life together, which meant that none of the emptiness was talked about and none of the tension broke the surface of their day to day interactions. They were adept at stepping around the gaping holes in their relationship. It was a congenial adaptation of the  ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’ approach to problems. Friends and family thought they were happy. They thought they were happy. Neither had expected that the honeymoon would last forever and so both, in their own ways, had been right. They’d gotten what they had expected, what they thought was a normal marriage. Consequently, they did the next expected and normal thing. They decided to have a child.

It is, indeed, normal to expect that having a child would fill in some of the gaps between them that they both felt and wouldn’t address. They would have a new common purpose, a process and an event that they could focus upon. It felt like a purpose. It felt like a renewed sense of meaning. It felt like closeness. It was also all within the range of what was to be expected. And when the child was born, they completely expected that this new life, this ongoing shared focus, would naturally keep them, as a couple, close together. They were completely shocked when that’s not what actually happened.

(Oh, the child was loved and cared for, dear reader. That’s not the story I’m telling… although that story is common enough as well.)

What I would like to draw your attention to is the intricate interactions between the expectational waves. When neither of them knew exactly what they expected, they both did what they thought others would expect them to do. Or what they imagined others expected them to do. Few, if any, of the expectations were based in an awareness of self or in the reality of their situation. As I’ve pointed out, any and every person can be generating wave after wave of expectation in any and every situation they’re in. In case you’ve forgotten or this is the only blog you’ve read, here’s a quick refresher:

We can go into a public restroom expecting there to be toilet paper.(there may or may not be). We can dine out without expecting to be sickened or poisoned by the experience. (fast food being the exception). We can be waiting for a bus, subway, taxi or limo and expect that it will be somewhat on time, that the operator won’t be drunk and that our safety won’t be an issue.(all normal expectations that have nothing to do with the reality of what then actually happens).

The last parenthetical statement is key. Expectations do not alter the reality of a person or a situation. Expectations alter our perceptions of that person and that situation. Our expectations warp reality, bend and distort reality, without our really noticing.

Two people waiting for a flight in an airport can have distinctly different perceptions of the reality that there has been a delay. One can bluster, fret and suffer. The other can accept, read and relax. Same flight, same amount of delay, same arrival time at the other end. That’s the reality. What each of them experienced, however, were worlds apart.

With the birth of their first child, our now not so youngish couple’s marriage became even less of the joining or union of two lives and more of those two lives operating in parallel. There was a physical proximity, additional responsibilities and a new life between them. But this didn’t bring them closer together as people. It simply kept them together longer.

That’s the ending most of us experience.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Sigh.

But what did you expect?

 

 

 

No Laughing Matter, The Midling

There’s a ‘honeymoon’ period in every serious relationship, whether there’s been a ceremony or not, that isn’t about going away somewhere for a week or two. It’s a period of time during which all of the effort, anticipation and focus of combining two unrelated molecules into one stable compound seems to have worked. Hence the phrase, there was a chemistry between them. This time period typically lasts for about 6 months to 2 years, but not always. There are instances where this period doesn’t last as long as the week or two the couple goes away. In which case, we remark that there was bad chemistry from the start. There are other instances, though, where this period can seem to last uncomfortably long. The sweetness seems artificial. The niceness is forced. We tell ourselves and whisper to others, ‘watch out, something’s going to blow.’

What makes this stage, phase or time period of relationships so unique is that the peace and ease that each person experiences is directly related to their willingness to suspend their expectations of one another as they coordinate and cooperate in their efforts to combine. The newness of what is happening requires an attitude of openness and tolerance, a kind of free floating approach to alternate possibilities. Internally, it can feel like the weightlessness of space. That’s because we have escaped the gravity of our expectations. We are no longer pulled and the pinned down by our thoughts of how things are supposed to be or have to be in order for us to be happy. We actually have created some real space for ourselves and our partner.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon your perspective, after a while, we tell ourselves (in so many words) that we need to come back to earth. It’s not that feeling floaty, looser and lighter about things was bad. Nope. It’s just not what we’re accustomed to. We will quite sincerely tell ourselves that we have to get back to reality.

Feeling looser, feeling lighter, feeling less confined and restricted feels unreal.

BUT IT IS REAL.

We were there. We felt it.

We weren’t drugged. We weren’t hallucinating. We weren’t clinically insane.

But we will discount it, dismiss it and disregard anything we might have learned about ourselves during the experience.

Sigh.

Our newlyweds experienced their floatiness together for about a year. Physical intimacy was accomplished without harm or trauma but passion was never really sparked. She came to expect him to make her laugh in order for her to relax and he came to resent having to entertain her in order to have sex. Needless to say, they didn’t talk about it. The frequency of their intimacy trailed off accordingly. She told herself that this was probably normal. She feared, however, that he no longer found her attractive. He told himself that sex wasn’t as important to her as it was to him. Otherwise, she’d complain about not having it enough…just as she had started to complain about other things that weren’t up to her liking. He started spending time with sites on the internet. He’d used this venue before marriage and told himself that there was no harm in it.

Another sigh.

 

 

 

No Laughing Matter, The Beginning

Shy woman meets nice but insecure man. Youngish, they are, very early twenties. Society’s new adults. His uncertainties and her timidity seem to pair nicely. She comes out of her shell of reassure him and with his indecisiveness, she never feels intimidated. Their relationship progresses slowly, no surprise here, but steadily. They’re serious about one another. The one area that presents a problem is physical intimacy. Her shyness is intense. She has little experience and rivers of fear about both anatomies. He, quite naturally, cannot decide how to move forward without making matters worse for her. For reasons that don’t require explaining, neither he nor she drink alcohol or use recreational drugs. Just in case you were wondering.

One night, as the evening was potentially moving towards being amorous, it occurred to him that he might be able to help her relax a bit if he tried joking around with her. He knew from their dating past that he could make her laugh, so he tried being silly and playful with his approach to touching, kissing and the like. There was some progress. There was some hope. He wasn’t going to rush her. She did, though, allow him to make a small advance. Over the next several weeks, and not every time they saw one another, he would turn to humor and silliness as a way to lighten her apprehensions as they found their way towards nakedness. They were engaged to be married by then and both agreed not to be overly concerned about this issue. They would wait until wed.

I’m not going to tell you the end of this saga yet. I won’t even let on if this was a real situation or an imagined one.

I will only tell you that the two brief paragraphs depicting this couple’s experience are positively saturated with unrealized and unspoken expectations.

Call it a mine field, call it an ice flow like the one the RMS Titanic steamed full ahead in to that night, call it whatever you’d like but it’s easy to recognize that expectations are anything but benign or harmless. When you step on one or run into one, the dynamics between two people shift noticeably…even dramatically. Situations that were pleasant become tense. Hearts and minds close off. Feelings are hurt and we frequently feel disrespected.

And we do not want to talk about it.

We do not want our expectations to be declared and/or discussed openly. We tend to be quite protective of our expectations, almost in a paternal/maternal way, as if they were  special children of ours that no one else could really understand. And, in a very emotionally real sense, that’s because they are.

My experience with expectations is that we formed most of them in childhood and we have never allowed them to grow up.

Bitterness is the fruit that springs from thwarted expectations.

Dusty and empty are the relationships that refuse to talk them through.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Meteorologists, Movie Makers & Me

Meteorologists (weather forecasters) have long been joked about and even teased that theirs is a profession that allows them to remain employed even though they’re wrong the majority of the time. (6o% to 70% of the time, depending upon which tracking model you use, European, Canadian or American)(that’s a joke). We’ve all watched their complicated, computer generated graphics and wavy armed explanations of what the current conditions are, only to look outside our window or step outside our door and see something completely different. We have frequently prepared ourselves for what they have predicted was ‘headed our way’, only to scoff hours later when they’re explaining all over again how it happened to ‘miss’ us.

Not for the lack of trying over many years and in every possible type of situation, I have learned that my forecastings (expectations) of how others were going to feel, or how a conversation was going to go, or what someone was likely to do in response to what I felt, said or did, were incorrect so often and in so many ways that the practice itself was useless. It was a waste of time and energy. It was like watching a movie with 18 alternate endings. Somewhat entertaining but exhausting. Oh, and completely frustrating.

Because, if I were actually watching a movie that was putting me through alternative ending after alternative ending, how long would it take before I was screaming at the screen (and the director who couldn’t hear me): “For ****’s sake, pick one will you?!!!!”

And that’s exactly what I found myself doing in real life; my initial speculations about a person or situation were somewhat entertaining, but mentally running through alternate scenario after scenario quickly became exhausting and frustrating. So I would just decide on one. I would pick one. And then I would drive the person and the situation in that direction. If I had predicted rain, then I would make it rain. If I had forecasted freezing temperatures, then I would make sure it was cold.

For a period in my life, my expectations subtly and unmistakably became a self-fulfilling prophecy mechanism. I would convince myself beforehand that I knew what was going to happen and then, through selective hearing, creative interpreting, and myopic focusing, by golly…wouldn’t you know it…I’d make things happen in a way that would make my expectations right.

Your role in my life was to play the part I had assigned to you. If you went ‘off script’, I would guide you back with phrases like: “That’s not how you should be looking at this.” or “You shouldn’t feel that way.” or “You have no right to say that.” My expectations of you defined you to me. If you met them, things went well. If you didn’t, things went to hell. I considered this reasonable. I was completely self deluded.

I was not a bad person. I was unaware. When I walk around with my eyes shut tightly, I bump in to a lot of things. I knock things over. I break stuff. I can hurt myself and I can hurt you even without ‘seeing’ it. When I am going through my life focused on my expectations, I miss ‘seeing’ a lot of things. I miss ‘seeing’ you as you, rather than you as I would have you be in my movie.

With much help and to my great relief, I practice the surrender of my expectations. I let them go even as they attempt to form. Everyday, I want to be free to be new.

I want the same for you.

 

 

What did you Expect?

I’ll repeat the question, because it’s not rhetorical: What did you Expect?

This question has always put me on the spot.

What did you Expect?

I can picture the question inscribed on my tombstone (not that I’ll have a tombstone).

It reminds me of the Naropa Institute motto: “Love of the truth puts you on the spot.”

When I answer that question, I feel exposed. When I tell you honestly what I expected, I can’t help but reveal something about myself to you. My expectations can’t lie. They are what they are. That’s one of the reasons we’re likely to fib about our expectations. We’ll tell you that we really didn’t know what to expect or that we didn’t expect anything. We generally don’t like being put on the spot. We don’t feel comfortable or safe with people, anybody really, getting to know us. (That’s a bit odd, considering that we humans are frequently described as social beings, but let’s leave this topic for another time.)

For lots of reasons, I’ve come to love the spot. That doesn’t mean at all that I’m stronger or better or smarter than anyone else. I’m simply a freer and happier me when I willingly step into the spot.

One of the ways I discovered this was by reverse engineering. It occurred to me that if someone else might be able to catch a glimpse of the ‘real’ me by asking me that question, I might just as well be able to do the same thing. That is to say, to get to know the real me.

It wasn’t all that hard or complicated. As often as I could remember to do it, before I went anywhere or made a phone call or even simply walked into the house, I asked myself ‘what did I expect?’. And I didn’t just ask the question. I searched myself and answered honestly. It rarely took more than a minute to do this. Then I went to wherever or made the call or entered the house mindful of what I was expecting.

It was a fascinating process on several levels. Here’s some of what I discovered:

  • acknowledging to myself what I expected made it easier to recognize when and in what way the situation was deviating from what I had anticipated.
  • being clear with myself as to what I was expecting somehow made it easier to express myself and my preferences if the situation was going in a different direction.
  • being clear with myself also made it easier to let go of what I had expected when my expectation wasn’t that important to me. I had to know what the expectation was before I could ever know if it mattered.
  • looking at my expectations made it quite evident that my expectations broke into two distinct categories…what I expected from myself and what I expected from others. I found that I was more than lenient with the first type and strict as all get out with the second type. In short, I had a double standard. I didn’t expect myself to live up to my own expectations but I sure as heck expected you to. Oh. Ouch. Crap.

Of course, there’s more.

Of course I discovered that much of what I expected was pure speculation and never actually happened.

Stayed tuned.

 

Examples of Expectational Waves

Example 1: One morning a person looking to be in a relationship decides to use an online dating service. After completing their questionnaire and creating their online profile, the account is activated and goes ‘live’. After two hours of checking and rechecking to see if there has been any activity or requests, the first wave of expectation passes through. The profile is reopened and revised. Age and interests are adjusted. The hook, freshly re-baited, is tossed back into the water along with a promise to be patient. There will be no checking until the next day. During that evening, the second wave of expectation is felt and the promise is broken. No bites, no nibbles, no action. The promise is made again to leave the site alone. The night is restless. Just before dawn, with hope and a cup of coffee, the site is checked again. Still nothing. A third wave of expectation rolls past as the screen is simply stared at and wondered about. The title of this photograph is Loneliness. Not wanting to sit with it (the loneliness), the person decides to start scanning other people’s profiles and clicking on whomever remotely appears to be a ‘match’. The fourth wave of expectation is in full force.

  • the first wave brought dishonesty
  • the second wave weakened integrity
  • the third wave introduced self-doubt
  • the fourth wave warped their judgment

Please note: All of this has taken place before any other person has even indicated an interest, no less gone out on a date. This is not a clash of expectations. These are the effects of expectations all by themselves.

Example 2: The head of your department has asked you for a one to one meeting later this afternoon. You suspect they want to discuss your current project. It’s an important assignment with high visibility and some office politics risk attached. The project itself is on schedule, although it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. You have been delicate but firm in dealing with the personalities involved. The first wave of expectation rolls through. You prepare to explain and defend. You review conversations and time lines in your head. You reread email chains. Just as you are about to feel relaxed, the second wave of expectation arrives. You find yourself casually making the rounds with your team members, talking with them informally, feeling them out for trouble spots in their attitudes or performance. You tell yourself that don’t expect to find anything but that it doesn’t hurt to do a little poking around. Whether or not anything is discovered, the third wave of expectation arrives. You turn to your mentor, a peer of your department’s head. You drop into their office, asking for just a moment of their time, (which they’ve always given you…after all, isn’t that what a mentor is for?) and say, “So, is there anything I should be worried about? My boss wants to see me in an hour?” The fourth wave of expectation floods the hallway as you walk towards the office itself for the meeting. It can feel like you’re swimming upstream. The fourth wave swamps you with “What ifs?” What if I’ve stepped on some higher ups toes too hard? What if the project is going to be taken away? What if I’m being downsized/terminated? What if this meeting has nothing to do with the project at all but involves me sleeping with my secretary?

  • The first wave brought with it defensiveness under the guise of preparedness
  • The second wave introduced suspicion
  • The third wave traded on friendship for insider information
  • The fourth wave didn’t warp judgment so much as it disclosed how warped it was.

These waves of expectations are invisible. They do not often rise to the level of our consciousness unless we are awake and looking for them. They do, however, have a definite and noticeable impact upon our choices and our behavior.

Another note: (yeah, I know, for heaven’s sake. Will I please stop doing this?) (That’s what I expect some of you might be saying…I’d put a smiley face here but I don’t know how…smiley again) Anyways, I only listed four waves in the examples because of the space constraints of a blog. These waves are limitless. They are self-amplifying. They can pass and then bounce back. We are not unaffected by them. But we are also not at their mercy.

Not if we’re awake. Not if we’re paying attention. Not if we’re choosing to notice ourselves and own our choices.