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…coping

Alone, she sat, the silver blade pressed against her arm. Slowly and deliberately she moved the metal across her skin, the gaping flesh making way for the trickle of the thick crimson blood.

She tried hard to work out how she felt as she watched the blood ooze from the wound. There was no anger or fear, she didn’t feel any pain, it was something else….relief, she felt relief.

Relief that she was still alive, the blood was proof of that much. Relief that she finally had something that was hers, something secret and special, her own way of retreating from the world. Relief that she could still feel, the tears had long since run out and she wasn’t sure she was capable of feeling anymore but for that moment she felt peaceful, content and alive.

The warm blood ran down the inside of her arm and for a while she watched in awe of the beauty, the colour, the warmth, the pattern it made as she traced the lines and then, very calmly she picked up a tissue and pressed it over the gaping skin, she lay back in the bed and for the first time in a long time she genuinely smiled.

She wasn’t sure how long she lay there for, or if she slept but when she did finally move she very carefully tended to her wound. It never crossed her mind that it might heal better with stitches, or that it could get infected….all that made sense was that now she had something to care for, a reason to look after herself and probably for the first time, something about herself that she loved.

The cutting continued for months, not every day and rarely as a result of anger. It was her secret, her moment of punishment and protection, penance and passion, revulsion and tenderness, a tangible expression of self loathing and yet also a reason to love herself. A living articulation of the great paradox of life; a way she could express, hold, contain and release some of those emotions she struggled to otherwise give language to.

She knew people judged her for it, labelled her as mentally ill, maybe she was but maybe most people were! Maybe they just chose the more socially acceptable methods of processing their emotions.

Those days, months, years were not my finest, not moments I’m proud of but I equally don’t regret living life that way. I guess I do regret the pain I caused to those who loved me, the worry and the disappointment they felt but I hold to the belief that those years shaped me. I also know that still, when life is overwhelming and the myriad of emotions that confuse any given experience seem to take over I think about finding a blade. I never have. I stopped cutting over fifteen years ago when I realised that it had become a habit rather than a release. I guess I’ve found other ways to understand, hold and express how I feel.

What I’ve also come to realise is that when those emotions dominate and all I want to do is hide away or distract myself from the intensity of feeling they demand, instead of employing yet another coping mechanism I’m now more able to name that emotion and mark it as holy! I know! Sounds a little crazy right!

Here’s how I now understand all of this: we all face times in life where emotions surface. Sometimes stirred by a song or a film, sometimes evoked by a smell or a sound. Sometimes storming to the forefront of who we are because of words spoken or words left unsaid; a response to our own or others actions. There are occasions of immense sadness and grief, others that cause us to fear or to doubt, some that just make us angry. Yet there are also times where a deep sense of joy and connection to something more releases feelings were not sure what to do with. I know now that there are many ways of releasing, burying or ignoring emotions; that extra glass of wine, an intoxicatingly wrong relationship, another evening spent watching pointless television or indulging in that extra piece of cake. Some of those ways we use to cope aren’t healthy, aren’t the best for us and others are deemed more acceptable, like an addiction to exercise or work. We all find ways of coping. Other times we don’t “cope” and we find ourselves reeling from the shock, embarrassment or disappointment of another outburst.

Yet what if we choose to name those emotions that hold us so violently. Fear. Doubt. Loneliness. Anger. Anxiety. Confusion. Grief. Hope. Joy. What if we draw a circle around whatever it is we’re feeling and allow it just to be. Not good or bad, just holy.

What if it sits in that holy circle either until the intensity passes or until we’re ready to deal with it, or more fully enjoy it? What if we listen carefully and calmly to what it’s telling us about where our life is at but we don’t allow it to push us into unhealthy behaviours or dependencies. What if we dare to stay awake, fully present in our own lives, in tune with who we are and where our lives are headed? What if some moments are simply holy, set apart as unexplainable, and uncontrollably beautiful? What if we have the courage to embrace that! What if that’s what it means to be fully human, fully alive? What if it all belongs? What if in that place we can truly know what love is?