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.

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.


The Forces of Habit, Part 4

The thread of these most recent blogs began a little over a week ago with ‘Our History with Change’. As you realize, it wasn’t so much a complete history as it was a description of our initial experiences and an overview of its impact. Change is a constant element in reality. Even what we understand that word ‘reality’ to mean, changes. For numerous reasons, our underlying gut reaction to change changed. We became wary. We became fearful. Change was no longer welcomed and embraced. Change was threatening and to be avoided. To be sure, stuff in life still changed. But we fought it, complained about it, covered our eyes towards it and only begrudgingly accepted it when it was forced upon us.

The truth is: Reality involves change and we are emotionally fighting reality all the time.

It is no wonder that most of us are frustrated and exhausted.

When I realized this in myself and for myself, it felt like a light bulb moment. Not so much an exuberant “Eureka!”. More like an “Oh” that morphed into two other types of “Ohs” which ended in a trailing off “huuummmmmm”.

I wasn’t thinking this through. I was feeling it ripple.

There’s a cliché we’ve all used when something has finally occurred to us: “It just dawned on me…”. Light has come to where, up to then, there had been only darkness. These are awakening moments. These are when our eyes start to peek open and begin to catch a glimpse of the bigness that surrounds us.

I want to tell you that the bigness isn’t here to eat us. The bigness wants for us to come out and play…to wake up to wonder…to wake up to the unpredictable, the inexplicable and the fascinating.

I began by making friends with change. Sounds simple. Here’s what happened:

I started small. I moved my watch from my left wrist to my right for no other reason than to feel how I felt about that change. No big deal, right? Well, I have to tell you that after about an hour, my watch became a huge distraction. My mind wouldn’t stop picking at it. My right hand felt heavier. I swore I felt sweat and irritation under the band. (There was no evidence of that every time I checked, yet it kept coming to my mind.) It banged into stuff…the desk…the coffee cup…the keyboard. At one point, the watch (my body/my mind) actually gave me the sensation of being hot and I seriously considered that it was malfunctioning and that I needed to take it off before I got burned. I was manufacturing false adverse physical symptoms as a reaction to one simple change. My mind was throwing  a temper tantrum! “Just put that back where it belongs and be done with this silliness.” I was scolding myself.

I gave in. I moved the watch back. Quite rapidly, almost immediately, everything felt better and settled down.

That’s my first awake experience with the forces of habit. I witnessed and felt the experience from start to finish. I was amazed, somewhat bewildered but thoroughly intrigued. I wrote down my experience with the best words I had at the time as if I were conducting my own experiment with myself. Which I was. Which is, of course, perfectly OK to do. Which I didn’t know then but have come to smile about now.

After I wrote down my notes, I moved my watch again. I was on my journey to making friends with change.



The Chains of Command

“That’s not how we do things around here.”

These words, and the attitude they reflect, are familiar to anyone who has suggested an alternative. Whether it’s in the break room, the boardroom, the classroom, the living room, the conference room or the bedroom, an alternate approach to anything is met with resistance. The resistance is so predictable that we can tell ourselves it’s natural. But it is not.

I’ll repeat that: Resistance to change is not natural. It is a practiced response. Most of us have become Masters of resistance. It is, ultimately, a fear based reaction.

A longish time ago, some guy from Greece is purported to have observed: “The only constant in life is change.” With or without another tote, something about this seems true, feels profound…but somehow unlivable or unrealistic. (Philosophy often has that effect on us.)

Still, if we ask ourselves to name one thing that has remained unchanged throughout known time (or even in our lifetime), it’s a stumper. Everything and everyone seems to be in a process of some sort…adjusting, adapting, formulating, dissolving, coming together and falling apart in endless variety. These processes are not independent or isolated from one another. In our sciences, we are continuing to discover and uncover the interconnectedness of everything. Some have referred to it as the ‘Web of Life’.

Still, in our own life, we often find ourselves resisting change out of fear. We suffer as a result…our relationships suffer, our job performance suffers, our enjoyment and appreciation of life suffers, our personal (mental, emotional, spiritual) growth suffers. All because we don’t want to change anymore. We want to keep things the same. Keep things the way we know them. Keep things where and how we’ve decided they belong. We tell ourselves that change takes too much hard work, costs too much time and energy, and only results in something that’s going to have to be changed again at some point.

Of course.

What if we have it backwards? What if it’s the effort to keep things the same that’s really draining us, that demands monumental amounts of time and energy, and that, ultimately, is so futile? These are not rhetorical questions that I’m going to leave you with, ‘drop microphone’ fashion.

The world was once flat in our common understanding. So, too, was the sun thought to revolve around the earth. Oopps. We were completely mistaken. There are so many examples of our being utterly and collectively misguided, I won’t go into listing them. I will only remind you that we are confronted with some of them to this very day.

As we seek to awaken to ourselves, owning our choices, altering our patterns, we make changes quite naturally. We begin to experience a sense of liberation and a renewed sense of possibility. We actually feel as though we’re in a ‘flow’. We are no longer chained to our past perspectives, no longer commanded by precedent to repeat poor behaviors



Epilogue: 8 Days in Shanghai

I’m somewhat confident that you, dear reader, with a computer and access to the internet, are familiar with camera videos recorded live from non-intrusive attached devices. “GoPro” might ring a bell. Unprofessionally but quite effectively, our ‘smart’ phones are often used to video capture experiences and information. Here’s the point, the camera is usually steady until the action starts or something unexpected happens…the shark attacks, the skier falls, the skydiver gets tangled, the log falls off the approaching truck, the gunfire starts, the stripper falls off the pole into the ‘camera’s’ lap…The camera, still recording, captures the chaos randomly. It doesn’t close its eyes. It doesn’t say a prayer. It doesn’t hope that it doesn’t break. (That’s all of the stuff that we are doing behind the camera.) Every time I stepped out from the hotel in Shanghai, it felt like I was kayaking in class IV rapids…or slaloming on a Black Diamond trail…there was a full sensory onslaught that required concentration. This isn’t to be confused with fear. No, this is a relaxed attentiveness. Not knowing where anything was meant that I paid attention to everything. Not knowing what might be interesting meant that I found almost everything interesting. I had a beginner’s eye. So my blogs concerning Shanghai are the edited and consolidated single camera’s view when it was steady. I know this. I know that nothing happened on this trip that knocked me on my ass, literally or figuratively. For that I am grateful but not naïve.

There were alleyways everywhere, some wide enough to ride through, most cluttered enough that you needed to walk. I didn’t do either. I only peered momentarily down each one and then stuck to the main ways. In a city as densely populated as Shanghai, people made a home wherever they could. There was a grittiness to Shanghai that contrasted sharply with its glitziness. No surprise here. But it shouldn’t be left unmentioned.

I noted in a previous blog that my wife and I had walked the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall. What I’d forgotten to mention was the complete absence of street performers… musicians, magicians, gymnasts or statuesque posers that I’d come to expect in large city open shopping areas. Dublin, London, Lisbon, New Orleans, New York…to list but a few…all had a thriving street art community. I speculated to myself that these artists had all followed the birds to somewhere.

We’ve been back in the States for twelve days today. I’ve had dreams and closed eyed daytime memory flashes of Shanghai everyday. Nothing unsettling or ominous. They say that those who have gone into orbit around our tiny planet come back changed in ways that defy description and, yet, remain profound. In a very real sense, I feel that way now.

Fear Moves

It’s impossible to read or watch much about politics in America that doesn’t involve fear. I do not suspect that this is unique or limited to our political process. And it seems that with each passing week, the level and volume of the messengers of fear are escalating as they all try to outdo one another. Political strategists will describe them as ‘appealing to their base’ supporters. I see it as appealing to the ‘base’ in their supporters.

In business, the cliché is: “Sex sells”. In politics, “Fear moves”.

This much is true.

Fear, however, simply doesn’t move us to the place it promises. Fear tells us that if we follow its path, we will be protected and be at peace.

Fear does not lead to peace. Never has. Never will. It leads to conflict and war. Always has. Always will.

The truth is when we follow the path of fear we will become more distrustful and suspicious, eventually of each other. The focus of our fear may shift but the fear itself only grows. When we’re living in fear, we can never feel protected enough. We can only feel disconnected and in constant turmoil.

Cowards use fear to incite and then hide (and profit) in the chaos of the stampede that follows.

It takes courage to act in trust. It takes courage to choose the path of peace. We would do well to rebuild the trust between us that is our greatest strength.