“This too shall pass,” is one of my mom’s catchphrases. It’s a mantra she says when things go poorly. It’s one of her ways to provide perspective on the current situation, to remind herself and others that things don’t last forever. She’s not wrong but my interpretation wasn’t helpful.
My context was on an eternal timeline. I was pushing things so far out that it gave zero meaning to what I was experiencing now. I was abstracting the idea into nonsense. Given enough time nothing really matters. This is the plight of every hero that gets blessed with some form of immortality.
Ultimately my interpretation taught me how to avoid the pain of the present by focusing on a much better distant future. Which on the surface seems like a good idea. But eventually, that pain would catch up to me multiplied by my procrastination. By avoiding the pain, I was creating more of it.
Having kids and a dog taught me the necessity of routine and consistency. It is much easier to manage the transition into bed when my kids can expect the same schedule of events every evening. Especially when it’s been a long day and they are tired.
If they know they get in the bath, brush teeth, read a story and then go to bed it doesn’t matter what they’ve faced they can fall into that routine relatively easily.
I rely on that same consistency. Life is easier when I know what to expect and it plays out to that expectation. The problem is when it doesn’t meet that expectation. Getting attached to expectations about my past or my future sets me up for disappointment. This is the genus of the phrase “don’t set your expectations too high.”
Detaching from my expectations should bring me into the present moment. When my expectations are held in the past or in the future I have no room to enjoy the present. Instead, I get lost in what was or what could be.
As much as I love the holiday season I find that I get emotionally caught up in my own expectations. Especially now that I am leading my own family. The result of the traditions we keep varies from year to year. Providing a different experience despite traditions being consistent.
Every year we cut down a Christmas tree. Some years it’s been at a tree farm and other years it’s been out in the woods. The farmed trees, while not perfect, are groomed to fit a Christmas tree aesthetic. But the natural trees tend to be a bit more, well, natural. The natural ones are one-sided, thin, or resemble a Dr. Seuss drawing.
On our first trip to cutting down a tree our kids were little, there was slushy snow on the ground, the tree we brought back was less than ideal. I was stuck on a Griswoldian Christmas Experience. I hadn’t planned for everything that could have gone wrong (which did). The tree we got that year is now jokingly called the “divorce tree.”
When the holidays come around I have both great and terrible memories. Because they are a time for hope and family I also carry around an expectation of what they are supposed to be. How I am supposed to behave and what I’m supposed to get out of them. It’s very hard for me to let go and enjoy the time I have with those I love.
If you asked me about my expectations I would have told you I don’t have any. That was only because I didn’t recognize them. They probably aren’t mine. I adopted them while growing up, attaching myself to the narratives I was surrounded by. They are hard to separate from how I identify. But those expectations will still place me in the past or future and not in the present moment.
But without any kind of expectation, I wouldn’t keep any traditions (and traditions are important). The real issue is not the expectation but my attachment to my expectations.
The first time I water skied I held onto the rope as a lifeline. The rope pulled me out of the skis and dragged me under the water. I was too attached to the rope. It was after I let go that could catch my breath.
Attachment feels safe and secure. Consistency and stability are interpreted as reliability. I bet on them, gambling my values and way of life for stability.
Janus, in Roman mythology, represents transitions. The god has two faces on opposite sides of his head. One looking into the past and one looking into the future. Awareness of both is important, but I want to add a third face. One to keep me the present.
One face to remember what came before. One for goals and aspirations. The third, influenced by the others, but firmly grounded in the present.
I don’t want to lose sight of where I came from or where I’m going. At the same time, I can’t lose sight of the only time I have -- the present.
There is a stoic exercise that does a great job connecting these three faces yet grounding in the present. I’ll walk you through the steps here,
If you'd rather listen through the exercise.
Death as sad as it is does a wonderful job of bringing the perspective my mom was aiming for. The finality of the time I have with those I love detaches me from any expectations. In the end, the attachment isn’t helpful.
As you are wrapping up this year and thinking about the next, reflect on where you are. Think about your expectations and your attachments. What are you having a hard time letting go of? What could you loosen your grip on that would ease some pain and bring you into the present?