The Prison of Expectation

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
― Lao Tzu

In a recent conversation with a friend I accidentally inquired about their state of mind which triggered a ten minute rant about money. How this event and that issue had left them behind on payments, cost them late fees, and was now causing them to be relatively broke for the next two months. There was such intensity and anger in their voice and they insisted on this difficulty as external—it was imposed on them. They took this small kernel, a relatively insignificant money shortage and extrapolated it into a global capitalistic conspiracy that rigged the system against the common person.

It would be easy for us to be judgmental of my friend. After all they were expanding a small issue into a large one, they were not in direct harm but actually just inconvenienced, and they were very angry about it. We are all prone to this same emotional response and likely we have all behaved in a similar manner at one point in our lives. Unexpected things happen that we didn’t see coming and it frightens us, causing us to lash out and look for a reason outside of ourselves. We design an infinite loop for ourselves that begins with desire, then expectation, and ends in disappointment. Stir and repeat. We should all empathize with my friend because few of us are able to avoid reaction and negative emotions when confronted with unexpected change, we may express it differently, but the reality is the same.

We go through our lives day to day with expectations of how our day will be. We have familiar routines, consistent interactions, and many of us have a reasonably stable income. I’m not talking about traumatic situations like the recent natural disasters—wild fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes—I’m referring to what we would consider normal day to day circumstances. Inevitably, the day comes when our expectations for that day or even a particular moment in time are not met. Our world shifts in some unexpected way and we suddenly feel under duress. It can be something small like realizing we forgot to buy coffee yesterday or something large like being laid off from work unexpectedly, but the reality is still the same, we thought X and instead we got Y. This triggers a fearful response. Our security has been threatened, in however small a way, and we want to react.

The reality is no two moments are ever the same and our idea of a persistent reality, the one that creates these expectations to begin with, is an illusion. We blur our daily experiences into a foggy landscape of comfort and reliability. We aren’t usually paying close attention to the moments in which we live, we miss that things are constantly different because day to day, these changes are small. We are also inundating ourselves with external data and media which clouds our observational capacity further. These things all conspire to make us react in concert with the story we have told ourselves about what our life should be, as opposed to what it is. Often, even when confronted with the truth, a change in our lives, we prefer denial to awareness. Our tendency as human beings is to react when something shifts. Maybe it’s the DNA from our ancestral hunter-gatherer selves that causes us to do so, but few of us sit still when we are hit with unexpected change. Our reactive selves create a chain of internal thinking that might easily extrapolate, as it did with my friend, into global conspiracies.

I have no intention of lecturing you on financial planning. I am certainly no expert on that matter. What I would like to share is the simple art of letting go of expectations and looking at your life like a journey day to day, where you really have no idea what is going to happen. When you get up every morning you can awake as if you are ready to venture forth into uncharted territory. Perhaps you’ll win the lottery that day, or get an unexpected inheritance. Perhaps you’ll get a phone call that someone close to you had died or taken ill. Maybe it will just be learning that your new job pays you on a schedule that throws off your monthly budget is now going to cost you late fees on your credit cards due to late payments. The fact of the matter is there are small and somethings large changes happening every day of our lives but we aren’t connecting the dots of how these add up to overall persistent change. We all live in a constant state of entropy but our very comfortable existence blurs that reality from us until something significant shifts.


Let’s say for the sake of argument that my friend is right and there is some global conspiracy that rigs the system against our success, was that an epiphany he had once he found out about his recent issue or did he know the conspiracy existed yesterday as well? This type of reactive and global thinking doesn’t arise spontaneously. We don’t formulate ideas about the world usually in a moments notice, especially when under some kind of duress. Ideologies take years to take shape within our lives and therefore we can recognize that his globalizing of a local problem was a reactive behavior that is rooted in his expectations. His fearfulness and reaction to the disruption in his feeling secure caused him to match his political viewpoints with a local phenomenon and connect the dots. Even if his ideological framework is correct, it won’t change his circumstances and sadly his anger about it won’t either, it will just serve to destabilize his own emotional state of mind.

As an artist you learn to observe discreet moments and see those moments as an infinite universe of possibilities. Close observation counter intuitively gives us a better picture of the global or universal because we see that there is so much variety that large scale conspiracy is unlikely. It also gives us, I think, a better tool kit for dealing with uncertainty and change. I’ve never met an artist whose creative outcome was exactly what they imagined it to be when they first conceived of it. The making of the work is the journey and that is where all of things of life come into play. With time an artist learns that these outcomes are shifting sands that add to the experience of being an artist and when incorporated eventually make the art work stronger. Artists learn to incorporate what they call happy accidents into the final piece because they realize no matter what they do or how they make the piece it will always be different from what they imagined anyway. As individuals, we can borrow this art-making technique and apply it to our lives. When you were a child you wanted to be a certain profession, fire fighter, astronaut, etc., but almost certainly what you do today as an adult is not what you imagined you’d be doing when you were in grade school. Your life has been a series of changes or happy accidents (although you may not always see them as happy) which has brought you to the human being you are today.

Once you accept the persistence of change you can begin to artfully imagine a different life for yourself. You can practice techniques that give you greater flexibility and joy in your everyday life even in the face of radical change or deep uncertainty. Artful living is a resilient living where you can expect things to go wrong as much they will likely go right in various degrees and prepare yourself to think on your feet or sit still depending on what is required, and not accept the prison of expectation. To some of us this comes naturally, but for most of us it requires work, but either way the result is having lived not in fear, anger, resentment, disillusionment, sorrow, or insecurity, but living your life like it’s own adventure. Finding grace and resilience in life is letting go of the self and expectations as much as possible. I’ll leave you with this quote from the great writer Gertrude Stein to ponder; “At any moment when you are you, you are you without the memory of yourself because if you remember yourself while you are you, you are not for the purposes of creating you.”








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