Sermon: Great Expectations (text & audio)

READING
“Tao Ching #2,” translated by Stephen Mitchell

SERMON
It’s not long after a child is old enough to be up on her or his feet and running around that we adults discover that we possess the most powerful curative known to humankind. We call it, “the boo-boo kiss.” Right? You know how it is: up the child walks with big tears and loud cries after a hard fall, and you gather them and make sympathetic noises. “Where does it hurt?” you ask. He or she points to the spot, and you kiss it. “Is that better?” you ask, and the child gives you a solemn nod.

Now we can get into quite a lengthy academic debate about how much good you actually did do, but there’s no denying that at some level that interchange did accomplish something. It is better, at least in the sense that you showed the child that someone cared when she or he felt injured.

We are, in a way, setting up an expectation that they can seek and receive care from the assaults of the world. And – who knows? – this may be part of what is behind another curious phenomenon called “the placebo effect.”

For generations we’ve known that some people who receive treatments with no active medical ingredients – say, sugar pills or saline injections – will nonetheless report that symptoms like pain and discomfort are alleviated. In fact, some studies have shown that even when patients are told they are receiving mere sugar pills they report more improvement in their conditions than those who receive no treatment.

A key to this effect may be in the word’s roots: “placebo” comes from the Latin meaning, “I will please.” Perhaps, like the “boo-boo kiss” on the playground, the effect is a reflection in some way of our trusting that we can expect to be cared for. It’s one example of the way in that our expectations can have a powerful effect on us.

Because, of course, expectations are woven throughout our conscious lives. Our ability to plan and project into the future is helpful, arguably one of the characteristics that make us human. But it also can be a source of grief, since it’s so easy to raise our expectations to unrealistic heights. And probably nowhere do we feel the effects of this more acutely than in our interactions with our loved ones.

As Stan indicated, many of us bring wounded hearts from our upbringings, and those wounds colors our interactions with our families and other important people in our lives. And so, as we head into the holidays, a time of year where family gatherings are not only planned but also dressed up with tinsel and great expectations of holiday joy, it might be a good moment to reflect on strategies to help us ease the angst that those expectations can bring.

You know what it’s like: whether you’re approaching that holiday gathering as a host or a guest, there are old scripts, old hurts that lie in wait. But you tell yourself, “This time it will be different. I’m going to be calm, I’m going to be positive. I won’t let myself get drawn into those patterns that trip me up each time, and I’m not going to escape and avoid. I’m going to be present, and I’m going to be real.”

And then in the middle of it just when you thought things were going well you are triggered by some offhand remark, and you’re off to the races once again. Is there a way that we can avoid that path or at lessen our participation in it?

We begin by acknowledging that this is hard work. It touches us at our emotional core, and that deserves some care and respect. At the heart of it, after all, is something that really matters to us. The people nearest to us do touch us and how we are with them really does affect our emotional wellbeing. Avoiding interactions with them it isn’t a tenable way forward. It only numbs and hardens us, making us even less accessible to our own needs as well as potential sources of our own healing.

So, what to do? The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron points out that the initial feelings of worry and dread that we feel when we get triggered may actually be a signal that those old habits are being disrupted. Instead of seamlessly moving into them with some sort of sense of entitlement, we can feel that they don’t really serve our needs. We no longer take them for granted, and wesee them as unhelpful.

But rather than letting anxiety take over, she suggests, try adopting an inquisitive attitude. So, this is what it feels like when I’m pushed this way. This is the cascade of feelings and worried self-talk that tumbles out.

This may not be something that you can do when you’re in the middle of it. It may be that the best you can do is simply stay present and get through the moment. But a little reflection in a time away offers a chance to sort through what you’ve just experienced, to acknowledge that bump in blood pressure you just felt and offer yourself a little compassion.

Again, this is hard work. It touches you deeply, and it will take time and effort to sort through. But it’s worth it, since on the other side is a healthier way of seeing and being. And just that moment of pressing the pause button before you launch into old scripts can be enough to help you see that you do in fact have all the tools you need to do it. As Pema Chodron puts it, “we ourselves are the source of wisdom and compassion.”

OK, fine, you say. But how about now, when I’m not feeling so wise or compassionate? Well, here are some thoughts that might help us lighten up and disengage old scripts: First, don’t set up the target for the arrow. That’s a pretty dramatic image, but it often fits how the escalating cascade of conflict with another can feel.

As Pema Chodron puts it, if you don’t put up the target, you can’t get hit. That serves as a reminder that in the end we are in control of how we respond to another. It doesn’t always feel that way when someone is pushing our buttons, but the fact remains that, as she says, “we set up the target, and only we can take it down.” Withholding the target can disrupt and eventually break down the patterns of anger and aggression that otherwise drive our responses.

Then, after we’ve settled down and disengaged from the pattern of conflict we found ourselves in, Pema Chodron advises that we look for a way to connect with the heart. Once we have stepped away from what had been an escalating conflict it is suddenly plain how pointless and damaging this process is, how each of us in this exchange suffers for it. As she puts it, “millions are burning with the fire of aggression. We can sit with the intensity of the anger and let its energy humble us and make us more compassionate.”

It’s not as if having gotten through this crisis we are suddenly above it, more enlightened, more grounded than others who flare into anger. Who knows what might push our buttons next and send us back down that road again. It is only through compassion that we find a centered way.

For me, this provides one way into the selection from the Tao te Ching that you heard earlier. It’s all about the complementarity of things – how ugly and beautiful, good and bad, long and short, difficult and easy are not unrelated opposites: they support and reflect each other. We know anger not from observing it, but from experiencing it. And yet, once captured by it we lose all perspective on it. But sitting with compassion in the presence of anger helps us understand it. After all, not all anger is destructive. Righteous anger centered in moral understanding is a powerful positive force. But reactive anger arising from our fears accomplishes nothing. It even serves to undermine us. Seeing and understanding anger from the perspective of a compassionate heart, rather than running away from it, opens us to that insight.

That’s because compassion arises not from weakness, but from strength of heart. So, it tempers anger, and in fact all emotions, and focuses it in a productive way.

So, again, as the Tao de Ching suggests, we are able to experience the world, and when things arise, we don’t seek to control them; we simply let them come. When things disappear, we don’t cling to them; we let them go. We are able to have things without possessing them. We are able to act without layering onto the experience many great expectations for what will come of it

So, what does all this tell us about expectations? Well, our expectations matter. They shape how we perceive the world, but they can also lead us down some pretty perilous paths. This draws me back to think about how these themes are reflected in that novel of Charles Dickens that parallel’s our topic today, “Great Expectations.”

We’re used to turning to Dickens at Christmas time to mull on the tale Scrooge and all his ghosts, but it occurs to me that his protagonist Pip may have something to teach in this season of advent when we mull over this matter of expectation. One could argue in a sense that Scrooge and Pip both learn a similar lesson. Just as Scrooge’s miserliness makes him miserable, the money that lands unexpectedly in Pip’s lap fuels grand and unrealistic visions of what it is to live with means. So, not surprisingly he makes a mess of it.

His dismissal of the good blacksmith Joe and later his benefactor Magwitch and his infatuation with the seeming ingénue Estella and all the glittering lures of a moneyed life are fueled by the same illusory expectations that come of self-indulgence and disregard for others.

When his comeuppance arrives, he, like Scrooge, is forced to recognize the error of his ways, how he has disregarded those who cared most for him while currying favor with those whose interests were purely selfish. It is the moralist side of Dickens at his best.

And there’s some justice in that. After all, isn’t there serious vanity in the whole notion that we can expect to know ow the future will unfold, that the world will dance around our hopes and wishes?

Instead, we are more often rewarded by curiosity and openness, by a willingness to be surprised to what the world has in store. Of course, what the world has in store is not always what we want to receive. So, we are also wise to nurture expectations that arise from commitment. We can give each other the gift of expectation that we will be and do what we say we will be and do for each other.

We will be there when the other stumbles or is in need, to kiss each other’s boo-boos or walk with each other in our sorrow and disappointment. Let those be the expectations that we give and receive in this darkest time of the year.