The one about…expectation!

Life was spiralling out of control. It had been a year since she’d left home but her understanding of who she was and where her life was headed was not becoming any clearer. Her eating habits were becoming more erratic as she desperately tried to have control over something. She’d failed to gain a place at university for the second year in a row and she had sixteen rejection letters to prove it. As she neared the end of her ‘year out’ she was very aware that life wasn’t going as she’d expected, not only had she failed to meet her own expectations she knew she’d pretty much failed to meet everyone else’s. That’s when the cutting began.

Maybe no ones actually got it together, despite appearances. Maybe we’re all living with expectation in some form or another. We don’t expect relationships to require so much work, we’ve been brought up with the fairy tales full of “happy ever afters.” We expect that we’ll find a job we’ll succeed at and enjoy, after all we’ve spent so many years in the education system surely that’s what we’re entitled to. We don’t even expect our loved ones to die when they do, even though we know it will happen to us all eventually, we never really expect death. We’re not really prepared for what life expects of us and sometimes we don’t cope with that!

Maybe we should be taught to manage our expectations; maybe then we’d cope with those feelings of anger, grief, frustration, sadness, loneliness and fear a little better. I imagine though, if we did learn to manage our expectations, that we’d also manage out the joy, laughter, hope and excitement and life would become incredibly monotone or mundane. So we’re left living with the challenge of expectation! Maybe if we could understand expectation our understanding of what it means to cope, or not, would make more sense.

Often in the ordinariness of the everyday we deal with a whole range of emotions because that what life invites. What if intertwined somewhere in those ordinary emotions that we all experience we also juggle that set of expectations placed on us either by ourselves or by others? What if just below the surface of our lives, we’re constantly managing those expectations? Like the pressure from the media to look a certain way, eat certain food or shop in a certain place? Or the pressure from our own family, friends or belief system to live up to a particular way of being in the world. We expect, or are expected, to cope and when we don’t we’re left somewhere between bewildered and depressed.

I know many people grow up with a strongly ingrained set of beliefs and a fierce loyalty to family. When we break away from that and find ourselves “free” of parental control or tribal constraints we take on the challenge of living those expectations. There’s a whole new world to explore. Many of us carry with us throughout life the expectations of the family that raised us, it acts as our moral compass, our marker for how to be in the world! For some that’s intertwined with “religious” belief, for others it’s simply family values. The expectation we get a job, earn money, buy a house, find a partner maybe even have children. Even if we feel our family don’t expect much from us there’s still social expectations that we’ll supposedly conform to. Somehow we learn to cope with those expectations but sometimes we find the demands of them stifling.

Here’s the thing, what if there’s some value in not coping, in not conforming, at least for a while? What if mental or emotional lapses, where we “don’t cope” actually are moments where we discover more about ourselves? What if some breakdowns in stability, some rebellion against societal expectation, or some failure to meet familial goals, are opportunities to reconnect with ourselves, to actually discover who we really are?

It seems that some of the greatest musicians, lyricists, writers and artists often struggled with depression or other issues which compromised their mental health. Some of the most beautful, creative and inspiring work is borne out of that place of pain. What if not coping provides opportunity for creativity to flourish? What if in those moments there is a deeper connection with soul, with meaning and purpose?

What if to some extent we need to celebrate our inability to cope rather than rush to find a quick fix? What if, when the temptation to meet all those expectations takes hold along with the stark reality that we either can’t or simply don’t want to, instead of adopting our usual coping strategies we take time out, to listen to ourselves, to reconnect with who we are and learn from what we’re experiencing because it is actually teaching us something! What if that’s really the role of religion in the world; not to place more expectation on us but to provide spaces and places to reconnect with ourselves and others, to encounter something more and share in the story we find ourselves in. What if then we find we’re better placed to navigate all that life asks of us? What if there’s something about being more honest with ourselves and others that allows us all to realise everyone’s just figuring it out, no one is completely sorted and everyone else is doing today for the first time too?

The one about…the elf that helps!

We have an elf, he’s called Elfie! He helps! He arrived on December 1st with seven advent calendars and a note that read:

My Dear Children,

It is with great delight that I send Elfie to your house to help you prepare for the arrival of Father Christmas. Elves are known for being highly mischievous and causing all sorts of pre-Christmas chaos. HOWEVER, Elfie is a special elf and chooses to only do that which is good, helpful and kind.

Elfie wants you all to enjoy Christmas and although it is unlikely that he’ll spend Christmas Day with you he’s very excited to be with you for advent and to enjoy all that this season offers. To be fair you wouldn’t want him there on Christmas Day as he eats all the sprouts (he thinks that’s the most helpful thing to do as it saves you having to eat them) they give him very bad wind and elf wind REALLY SMELLS!

So enjoy having your little friend to play and remember to also do that which is good, helpful and kind – the elf way is the best way!

Have a very happy advent,

Yours,

Pepper Minstix

Acting Head Elf

So far Elfie has moved the toys to make way for the Christmas tree, dusted the bookcase, swept the floor, cleaned the loo, tried to hang the washing, sorted out the felt tip pens that work from those that don’t, tidied the bookshelf and walked the dog. All because Elfie only does that which is good, helpful and kind!

What’s most interesting about this elf is the way his behaviour is influencing the children’s behaviour! Our seven year old put a box of toys away because “that’s what the elf would do”! She also filled in her “Elf book” finishing the sentence “my elf also likes…” with the word “HELPING!” Our four year old sat with the elf and told him “I’m helping you with your writing” and then encouraged the said elf by saying “well done Elf, you did it!” It does seem that one little elf is having a positive impact on the family!

I read somewhere that ‘the big thing is the accumulation of all the small things’. It reminded me of that phone company tag line “you’re every one to one you’ve ever had”!

The problem is that we live in a world that doesn’t value the small things, a culture that doesn’t recognise the importance of the mundane.

Our culture is very much into event. We celebrated Halloween, closely followed by bonfire night; then the more solemn occasion of remembrance day and now all energies are fully focused on advent, Christmas and New Year. All in less than eight weeks! By the time we’ve thrown in a few birthdays, Valentine’s Day, mothering Sunday and fathers day, oh and Easter we’ll have moved pretty seamlessly from one event to another and before we know it summer will be over and the fireworks will start again!

Somewhere in the midst all of that life goes on. The small things have to take place; the email has to be sent, the washing has to be hung, the beds have to be changed, the dog has to be walked, the dinner has to be cooked, the cake has to be baked, the paperwork has to be signed, the mundane things have to take place. It’s easy to look at other people’s lives and forget they live with the mundane too. It’s even easier to read a book like the bible and forget that the great characters lived through the small things as well as making their notable contributions to life: Jonah and the Whale or Jonah, Daniel in the Lions Den, Moses and the burning bush, Joseph and that technicolor dream coat; they all had days, weeks, years where nothing…much…happened.

It’s especially easy at Christmas to forget the gritty reality of the mundane; sleepless nights, changing nappies, endless feeding, entertaining guests when you’re exhausted! Jesus was a real baby! It’s easy to overlook Jesus childhood and teenage years; we don’t often think of him as a twenty something. Jesus lived the small things, the normal; he played, he studied, he did chores, he went to the temple, he may have even mastered his fathers trade. He ate, walked, slept; the big thing he did was the accumulation of all the small things. Even in the three years of his life recorded in the bible the mundane is often ommitted but the everyday, routine chores must of been carried out, most likely in a way that complimented the bigger story he was living.

Why is this relevant? Christmas will come, there will be food, family and friends. There will be presents and parties. The celebrations for most will continue through until New Year but then for most of us they will end, we’ll all be left wondering where Christmas went whilst facing the cold realities of January and February! Maybe that sounds a little bleak, the New Year is an opportunity for fresh starts and positive thinking but within that there is often some adjusting necessary to enable us to embrace “normality”. What if the challenge is to have integrity during those more mundane days, to see the small things we do each day as an opportunity to shape who we are? What if every one to one encounter shapes those involved? What if we accept that it’s not healthy to live for the next event, and instead of filling our time with plans for ‘the next big thing’ we take time to think about how we do the small things?

What if we also choose to stop once in a while and acknowledge the gift of the mundane? What if the normal, sometimes dull, maybe boring, really is a gift? What if that’s where we get to discover who we really are and find that the bigger picture, the one the world sees, is the accumulation of all those smaller moments that have taken place?

What if the appearance of one little elf really can inspire us to celebrate the whole of life and live it in a way that inspires others! As for why we were sent a good elf, some things remain a mystery!