(this is the last entry for my series on my fears and the flip-sides of my weaknesses. If you’re still with me, well, thanks for reading!)
We all have unrealistic expectations. For the most part, they stay tucked away and unseen. Like the undertow.
Until some sort of disappointment, insult or injury pulls you under. Then you become hyper aware of them.
We all have realistic reactions, too. For the most part, they are pleasant surprises. Like a tax refund.
They are the universe’s little bits of encouragement, honors or other delights that show up when you’re at the right place and the right time.
I’ve said before that I had an unrealistic expectation that my dad would live to be past the ripe old age of 36. Sure, the statistics would point toward the reality that it’s likely he’d have lived to be double that number…but people win the lottery. The odds of that are higher than being struck by lightning. People get struck by lightning, too. Don’t confuse unrealistic expectations with statistical norms.
So, it’s pretty normal to live your life with those statistical norms…which makes it even more strong when your roulette number comes up. The anger that surfaces first when one of these unrealistic expectations hits tends to be directly proportional to the odds against it. For example, you might roll your eyes when your toddler doesn’t pick up their toys or cuss when someone cuts you off in traffic or wail your eyes out when they wheel your dad’s casket adorned with the same type of flowers that were in your mom’s wedding bouquet the day they married.
It’s also pretty normal to clap and cheer when your toddler takes his first steps or high-five the folks at the bar when your team scores a TD or have your heart jump into your throat when you see your daughter in her wedding dress—that you made a point not to see her in it previous just so you’d have that moment—standing at the top of the Driskell Hotel lobby staircase (in the interest of fairness, I had a similar reaction when the other daughter’s name was called to give the valedictory address at her school). I’ve found those reactions are proportional as well.
Our personalities play into that, too. I’ve got friends that weep deeply at movies that begin with a desk lamp jumping on the letter “i.” I’ve also got friends who can see their favorite band live with 60,000 people screaming and have their arms folded across their chest…but having the time of their life nonetheless.
I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ll cuss under my breath and punch a pillow when the Tigers fumble at the one and high five my buddies when Mazara puts one in the home run porch. I’ll hug my students when they get accepted to their first choice college. I’ll hold the hand of another student on the transatlantic flight because they didn’t know they were scared of flying until that moment. I’ll laugh like crazy when my friends are funny. I’ll smile when my wife walks through the room and my first thought is how pretty she is. You get the idea.
But that’s the new me. That’s years of recalibrating my emotional responses after my dad’s death.
And recalibrating is precisely the word I want to use.
Because I’d shut off any and all emotion in high school…with the exception of anger but even that was more of a controlled aggression. It showed up in heavy contact in non-contact sports and those fake sports fights where you point fingers and start shoving knowing full-well it’ll get broken up before it gets much past that. Mosh pits were about the only place I was fully emotional.
Everything other than that was squelched. I kept busy. I choked them all down…the things that hurt and the things that were fun. It was easier, frankly.
Then I met my Winnie Cooper and started reading my Bible. In that order.
My high school girlfriend was great in a lot of ways. The most interesting to me was that she cared enough to ask good questions and then gave me time & space to answer. It usually went something like this:
“So, how, exactly, did your dad die?”
“Hmm. (silence for a half a minute) So, when do you work this weekend?”
(Two days go by)
“Hey, remember on Tuesday when you asked how my dad died. It isn’t really as simple as a heart attack…(some long story of whatever I was thinking about the whole ordeal)”
“Thanks for telling me that. I know it isn’t easy for you and I’m glad you did. You can always talk to me, you know.”
She knew when to speak and when not to. For some reason I just knew she was trustworthy. I could count on her, too. I made choices to love her and my feelings followed. Might’ve been the first time I really felt anything other than anger in three years. She was my best friend in high school (distinctly different than my buddies who had a needed but entirely different role to play). Bonus: I got to kiss her. Double bonus: She was exquisite (and my guess is she still is…we are Facebook friends but tend to go years between chats and neither of us are really class reunion people. If I didn’t plan the first two I’m not sure I’d have gone). It’s an understatement to say she was easy on the eyes but add all the extra lasting character traits and, well, wow. Needless to say, I was–and this word is precisely the one that fits–gutted when things didn’t work out (timing can be a real wicked bitch sometimes and that fear of abandonment thing? Yeah, that came back in spades for a while) but at least I was feeling again. It was high-risk and I lost the chips I had on the table. But I was in the game, man.
That made me a better person in the long run. A better husband. A better father. Better at almost the things that really matter to me. I could ante up and play high-risk again.
This ability to feel again was coming at a time when I was getting closer to God and spending a lot more time in my room reading the Bible. One passage was a game-changer for me…so much so that it heavily influenced how I taught my students when I was on the teaching end of things.
It’s that well-known section the Byrds sang about in “Turn! Turn! Turn!” You know it: “There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance…”
And on it goes. It never hurts to go back and check that one out. Ecclesiastes 3 if you’re interested.
Anyway, the theme of the book is on gaining wisdom…which is something I really started to strive for. I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but I stole the phrase from a friend of mine and incorporated it heavily into the lives of my students: Wisdom is knowing what time it is.
Is it time to fight or not? Is it time to laugh? Cry? Mosh? Refrain from moshing? And on it goes.
It seemed to me that the Bible was clear on the idea that emotions are a good thing…just be wise in how you deal with them.
So, what is the flip side of my emotional detachment? What strength comes from that?
First, I learned that emotions are responders in that they respond to whatever stimuli they’re given. Whether it’s getting cut off in traffic or getting a tax refund. The wise thing to do is line them up with Scripture and see if they are the appropriate ones…or at least rational ones. They can be controlled appropriately. I use the example of waking up from a nightmare and you are shaking and breath is short. Everything changes when you sit up, take a look around and your brain changes the response because it’s now feeding you truth.
As an aside, this is why I push back hard when people tell me they “just have to vent” or “they made me so mad” or “if Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” Please. Mama needs to get happy. Someone else’s behavior doesn’t excuse you from self-control. Venting (unless it’s to God—be careful with that fine line) is anger. Self-control is a thing. A fruit of the Spirit thing. Live supernaturally, I say.
Second, I learned to be in the moments. One of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, said that sometimes, we need to take a step back when we are in a pure life moment and say, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” And my use of the phrase I stole from Stephen King (“manalive!”) tends to express my feelings a great deal. It’s also okay to let my personality be what it is. So, if Dez caught it and dives for the end zone I can high five my friends. When the refs overturn it and call it incomplete, I can curse under my breath. I don’t have to be over-the-top if that isn’t who I am. We’re all God’s children and there’s room for all of us.
Third, I can choose to let others in and be better for it. Sure, you can get hurt–even gutted–but that’s the risk. You’re playing another hand and that’s a good thing. I’m pretty picky about who is in and who isn’t in my circle of trust but if you’re in, well, you might not like what you see but what you see will be real. Letting others in and being transparent with them—no matter how much time it takes for me to get there—makes my life more abundant.
And that’s wisdom…
…when you think about it…
…is what I really got from my fears and their flip sides.
(up next: thoughts on leaving the suburbs and moving downtown)