“I would think he would know how to train her better,” my aunt said, as she motioned to my father who was barreling through the house, one hand reaching for balance, the other clutched tight to the leash of his dog. “He is home with her all day.” One would expect that with all that time and personal attention, specifically from a man who has always had well-behaved, tricky-savvy Golden Retrievers, Myla would be a perfect pup.
I looked up from my coffee, and the expression on my face said nothing short of duh. She nodded. “I guess you’re right, Janna.” I smiled a crooked smile. No one in my family needs to say the words “brain injury” anymore. Brain injury is understood. We all know that John is better these days and that he tries harder, but we all know that he still has trouble with things like motivation, empathy, and compulsivity. It’s those darn expectations that make us forget what’s really going on.
I know I’ve written about expectations before, but they seem to be particularly stubborn as one year turns to the next. Expectations are sly. They creep up on you and then they’re hard to shake, because they demand to be heard. They will rule everything if you let them, but their rules can be unfair. Pretty much every single time I’ve had an expectation, the only thing I can remember about the outcome is being disappointed. I don’t believe that expectations serve us. That is not to say that we can’t have hope, or that we can’t set goals, or that we can’t look toward the future with a plan in mind. We can certainly want things for ourselves and for others. But let’s be loose, shall we? Because being rigid on an outcome doesn’t often work.
I remember the first time I experienced what it would be like to totally and completely be okay with what is — even if it turned out to be the exact opposite of what I wanted. I was among a group of my closest friends, and one friend was telling us about the man she had recently started falling for in a big way. She told us that even if he picked up and left her (or worse scenarios) that she would be okay. She would be sad, sure, but she would without a doubt survive any circumstance where she was not able to be with him. What? Such a negative view of her relationship or maybe hopeless is a better word. She loved him, she hoped to be with him for good, she planned on it, but she was totally okay if none of that played out.
Over the next few months, my idea that her view was negative shifted to neutral. Neutral was a place I hadn’t been in a long time, but at the end of my yoga-teacher training, I was beginning to understand the benefit. I was learning to quit wallowing in the what ifs of my father never having had a brain injury, and I was beginning to understand the concept of being okay with what is. I quit telling myself stories about what could have been (I was so good at that. We would have gone to see indie bands together; we’d have cheered our beers; we’d have bought Mom big presents and nice horse saddles; he’d have bonded with all the guys in my life). It was time to stop focusing my energy on the what ifs and the coulda woulda shouldas. My friend had it right. Let go of expectations.
Eventually over the next few years, I was able to realize how liberating it felt to have fewer expectations. It’s not like I’ve perfected this, but I try hardest with my father. I still believe in him following his rules and continuing his therapies. There are goals he can achieve and behaviors that are simply not cool. But I am done gripping onto an idea of the way he is going to be in order to satisfy what I think. It’s not lazy, and it’s not negative. I’m still stupidly optimistic. I just quit being stoic about it. He will have good days and great days and really wretched ones. He will say unkind things and he will whisper encouragements into my ear when no one is looking. He will both surprise and disappoint my mom. He will love the dog, and he will forget to feed her breakfast. He is always going to have a brain injury, but I have a choice: I can stop dreading that my dad is going to act like he has a brain injury, and I can stop hoping that he won't act like he has a brain injury. Now, I can let him be who he is, and in doing so, I am able to accept what is.
January starts a new year. We have one clean, unblemished blank slate for us to fill up with hopes and dreams and goals and plans. I challenge you to not fill up 2015 with expectations of yourself or others. It’s hard — as hard as breaking a bad habit, but I swear that not having expectations is the way to go. Just give it a try.
The next time you are expecting something (whether it’s brain injury related or not), say to yourself, “I have no expectations.” Say it again and again. It might feel silly at first, but it works. I practiced this a few days ago and learned that when I expect less, good things might just happen — as the saying goes — when I least expect it.