This post is an in-depth review of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and how it mirrors my own life.
I’ve never read Great Expectations. I considered my obligatory readership of Dickens complete after Bleak House, Nicholas Nickelby, and (of course) A Christmas Carol.
Nah, I am referring to the “great expectations” we humans tend to have (for ourselves and those around us). And how those “great expectations” set us up for perpetual disappointment and eventual suffering.
I think there are two categories of “great expectations.” There are those expectations we have that are, indeed, “great,” i.e. we anticipate our ideals will be met. Perfection. Ease. Lack of hardship. Then there are the expectations that are “great” but greatly bad. In other words, expecting the worst.
Before recovery, and even still at times, I tend toward the latter kind of expectation. I’ve experienced so much loss and abandonment in my life that I am always looking up for that other shoe.
An ex-sponsor told me that by expecting the worst, I was being self-indulgent. This way you get to feel bad twice. You feel bad and all-consumed once, before anything bad has even happened, and then you get to feel bad again, when that bad thing does happen.
While I think that’s pretty harsh and I don’t think it’s that simple, there’s some truth to the above. For me, expecting the worst was a learned response to life. Self indulgent? Yes. Voluntary? Not so much. It was something introduced and reinforced throughout my lifetime. Unlearning that overnight was improbable, actually, impossible. I needed proof. That good things could and would happen. That people could and would be reliable, dependable. That my hard work could and would pay off. Which I don’t think is unreasonable. I tried for years to will myself to have self esteem. Doesn’t work. It had to be built. Brick by brick. Upon a solid foundation.
Now to some extent we do create our own reality (and bring additional, unnecessary suffering upon ourselves). But I don’t believe it to be as black or white as the “self-fulfilling prophecy” theory. There’s so much beyond our control– again, discipline, vigilance, and willfulness don’t always do the trick. In recovery, I had to abandon my willfulness. Acknowledge that I’d done a terrible job of driving the bus thus far. I let go and permit the Universe take over.
At the same time, I do have influence on the soundtrack to this uncontrollable journey. When my feet hit the floor at 6 am accompanied by the thought this day is going to suck ass, it’s highly likely that will be the case. Because that’s where I have already put my attention; what I will be on the lookout for. Doesn’t mean I want or believe I deserve it! If I can adjust my thinking before leaving my warm cocoon of slumber and say thank you, Universe, for what I have; let’s have a good day, I am apt to have a more positive and effective approach to my life the following 24 hours.
I don’t always do this well. And I am still guilty of great expectations. Just two weeks ago, I had a panic attack. Triggered by fear. Something trivial set me off and I was momentarily consumed by thoughts that everything, and I mean everything, was going to fall apart. I felt the weight of that giant proverbial shoe–an ugly, heavy hiking boot–dropping from the sky.
Thankfully I have tools to deal with such crises today. I cried and felt my feelings fully for a few minutes and then I refocused on my breathing. Breathing in love. Breathing out fear. Then I talked with my man friend about what I’d experienced. He held me and listened. Turns out the acceptance of my feelings, deep breathing, and the comfort of a loving ear and embrace was all I needed to snap out of it.
I am finding that one of the hardest parts of recovery, specifically emotional sobriety, is letting go of fear. Abandoning my learned response that terrible things will ensue. Not that I’ve swung the other direction and expect perfection. It just means I am trying to stop waiting for that damn boot. I don’t attach myself to any specific expectation. Of myself and of others. I’m trying to hand off authorship of life’s script. It’s acceptance of my human condition.
Now this is important– in no way am I advocating the abandonment of wonder and dreams. I am a romantic. I have so much wonder about my life. I dream and I dream big. But I do my best not to get mixed up and weighted down by anticipated outcomes. And I have to remind myself of this ALL THE TIME. I’m always breathing– in love, out fear. Like the mantra, I take it one day at a time. And I’ll be damned… that cliched way of life works for me.