Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives

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EXPECTATIONS: Helpful and Otherwise


Overheard in a college hallway: “I am who I am! I cannot be responsible for his expectations of me.”

The tone of voice was stressed, angry. The speaker was obviously struggling in some relationship where she felt the pain of believing she was expected to measure up to some standard with which she did not agree, or believed she could not meet. Her anger at not being accepted for that of which she felt capable seemed fed by her guilt that she had not measured up to the standards of someone important to her.

Or, was I projecting? Was I reading too much into a simple declaration, simply because it resonated so deeply? Who among us has not at some time felt the pangs of inadequacy, having somehow failed to be the person that a parent, teacher, friend or spouse thought us to be? More important, who of us is not guilty of verbally projecting our expectations on another in a judgmental fashion, capable of stripping the other of self-confidence and a sense of belonging.

Strange Family

Strange Family

As the Academic Dean of a small college in an rural area where students received a suboptimal education, as both student and faculty advocate I was often called upon to mediate the issues arising when faculty from more cosmopolitan backgrounds failed to recognize the intelligence and potential of their students, judging them only on their failure to have been adequately prepared for college level work. Faculty would often disparage the students publically, claiming they would not work, could not learn, and should not be in college. Their expectations of the students were as low as their claims, and the relationships between those faculty and their students were broken and painful. Neither group expected anything good to come from the other.unhappy 1

Yet my own experience with these students was that on the whole (of course there were exceptions – there always are) the more I expected from my students and the more I recognized their exceptional qualities, the harder they worked and the more they succeeded. Further, they returned my love and respect for them, and for each other. The same was true for my students in Africa, as well as for my students in a large city-based university.

The principle, I believe, crosses cultures and generations. I first heard it stated from a young OB-GYN physician who had been charged with overseeing residents, interns and patients in a central city hospital clinic. I had the privilege of working for him as he changed the appearance, the attitudes, and the quality of care at that clinic. Where it had been said patients were “herded like cattle” into the clinic area itself, and then into exam rooms where they were prodded, talked about over their heads between the teaching and learning physicians as though the patient was a dumb animal, where the environment itself was dirty and depressing—there was change. In an attractive, welcoming environment where every patient was treated as well as paying patients in a private doctor’s office, we were able to observe the change from surly, quarrelsome and often unwashed patients to patients who were no different from those in any doctor’s office, where they trusted their caregivers and returned the respect they were given.

What that young physician believed and lived by, and helped everyone around him to emulate, was the statement he always made: “People will respect themselves and act accordingly if they are treated with respect and dignity.” Most did just that.

What I told my faculty members was “These students will live up to—or DOWN to—your expectations. Either outcome will be elicited by your treatment of them.”

Expectations make us or break us. Expressed in love as realistic possibilities that honor and dignify the humanity of the other, they can inspire. Expressed as a judgment of the failures of the other, or as a goal absolutely not in accord with the dreams and goals of the other, they are destructive. And that includes the expectations we have of ourselves.


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The expressions of a pervasive sense of impending doom are on the increase, whether you read/listen to the armchair experts on social media, or the professional experts in science, economics, philosophy, or religion. Yet as I look around me in the “real-life” portion of my world, people seem to be pretty much absorbed by the joys and/or challenges of daily living rather than wondering whether the world is going to end in a financial meltdown, climate change disasters, the extremes of social anarchy, or World War III. Then, of course, there are others who only argue about who is to blame for any of these terminal disasters, as opposed to those who fatalistically refuse to think about it: “Whatever will be, will be.” Finally we have those who are totally unaware, perhaps desensitized by a lifetime of failed threats of the immanent End of Time.

-Remember the back yard bomb shelters of the Cold War era, complete with supplies to support a family until it was safe to return to the earth’s surface (however long that would be)?

-Remember the End Times and the Space Ship arrival cults? (True, these are not entirely gone).

-Remember Y2K, and the Mayan Calendar date of December 2012?

Or, just pick up the New Testament and read the words of the prophets who followed Jesus, claiming the Rapture would occur just any day, despite the words of Jesus himself, who stressed that the date could not be known. Yet the Second Coming of Christ has been predicted many times in the past 2000 years. It seems that when we are not fearing the end of the world, we are happily anticipating it.

Widespread dissatisfaction with and/or fear of the world as it is, however, have always been accompanied by cries that “the sky is falling.” And sometimes, it does – though not even close to earth-wide since the destruction of the dinosaurs. It happens to us as individuals, too. When everything goes wrong in our lives – economically, health-wise, or in relationships – the suicide rates go up, while others still consider ending it all or pray to die, because their situation is intolerable. The reasons for coming disaster mount up, while our ability to think rationally enough to take action for positive change in our own lives rapidly disappears. If that is our individual coping mode, how can we expect to fare any better in large groups, or as a nation?

Where is the leadership that can put aside their personal fears and aspirations, and show us the way to work together to solve the problems that have solutions, and learn how to prepare for the “new normal” when change is inevitable?

Where are the families and the communities that can help each other to get through the bad times, and show their children how to deal with disaster and failure as well as with success and wealth? I know for a fact that these exist, but perhaps there simply are not enough of them. Or maybe they have forgotten.

Where are the teachers who used to show us how to apply theory and practice to real life situations, and how to think critically in order to separate truth from fiction when possible? I do know of some.

Finally, we can’t blame all these people for our individual and collective feelings of impending doom. I believe that our lives will improve when we stop rushing head-long and helter-skelter into the end of time and stop to get our common sense back.

Yes, indeed, there are threats to our safety and well-being. There are major changes coming to life as we know it. (In fact, there always have been – they just come faster now). We can’t afford either denial or complaisance, and we never could. We have, however, succeeded grandly as a human race when we have cooperatively put our mental and physical resources together to figure out how to meet the challenges of the day, how to be good stewards of our resources, and how to live together in relative peace. This works for nations, for communities, for families, and for individuals.

The sky is not falling yet. It may never fall. But there are definitely some threats. While those who can, work together to see that the potential for damage is lessened as much as possible, the rest of us need to be cooperating – with those who are knowledgeable, as well as with each other — and not giving in to fears of the future or to total denial.

The way to get through a challenge is to work it out, and work it through. Life has always been like that.



It was a fine summer day in the Magic Forest, where a Wise Old Owl, perched on the limb of one of the lovely old oak trees, kept turning his head (as owls are wont to do) to peer wide-eyed at the impressive sight behind him. Just that morning, he had come upon a huge stone wall through the middle of the forest, and no matter how high he flew, he could not get over it to the other side. Nor could he discover an end to the wall, in either direction. It was now well into the morning aowlnd the owl, being a nocturnal creature, was ready to call it a night and go to sleep. Unfortunately, he could not rest. The puzzle of this huge wall was in itself distracting enough – but what was on the other side?

Even though he had turned his back to the wall, he was unable to resist turning his head to look at it, time and time again. After a while, he began to discern what appeared to be a door, or a closed gate in the wall. The more he focused on the potential opening, the more clearly it began to take shape. Finally, it seemed as though a huge wooden door, shaped and hinged much like the door of a medieval European castle, was now as solidly embedded in the wall as the wall itself was an unchanging and solid part of the landscape. The magical nature of this phenomenon did not bother the Wise Old Owl, because he was perfectly aware that he lived in a magical forest, where strange things sometimes happened.doorway of truth

But the occurrence of strange things in magical forests is usually a sign that something of importance is coming into being. Being wise, the owl knew this to be a fact. So, giving up the idea of sleep altogether, he flew to the door in the wall to investigate. The first thing he determined was that it was very real and very solid, as he was quite elderly and in his sleepy state he misjudged his flight pattern and bumped into it. Rubbing his sore beak with the edge of a wing, he cautiously approached the wall on foot. He tried the latch, (did I mention that he was a very tall owl?) to see if he could open the door. He could not. Next, there appeared a keyhole just below the latch, and in his wisdom, the owl understood that the door was locked. Lacking the key, he would not be able to open it.

Just as he was gathering himself to fly back to his perch in the oak tree, the wall delivered a final manifestation – a sign shimmered into place above the door. Peering through the morning sunshine, the owl sounded out the letters:


The Wise Old Owl grew very excited. Because of his wisdom, he had always sought Truth. And now here it was, just on the other side of this locked door in an impenetrable wall. Surely, as old and as wise as he was, he could review all of his knowledge and past experience and discover how to open the door to Truth. So he set his mind to it.

Meanwhile, crashing his way through the Magic Forest, there came a very large, very noisy and very ponderous elephant. Upon seeing the wall, exactly where it had never been before, (and he remembered this, because he was an elephant and as everyone knows an elephant never forgets) he became enraged, lowered his head, and charged the wall….. And charged the wall again, and again, until he knocked himself silly and had to sit down.elephant

Determining that the elephant was now quiet and still enough to hear him, the Wise Old Owl asked the Large, Strong Elephant if he could see the door. Once the stars from banging his head against the wall cleared, sure enough, the elephant could clearly see both the door, and the sign above it: TRUTH. He gingerly stretched out his sore trunk, and tried the latch.

“It’s locked” the Owl told him. “Any lock can be forced open” the elephant grumpily responded, still convinced that his wealth of size and power was the answer to everything.

“Listen to me! I not only have the experience of this particular wall and door, but I have reviewed all of the learning and experience since the beginning of time in the Magic Forest,” trilled the Owl. “If you will hear what I know, perhaps we can open the door.”

“Nonsense,” replied the Elephant. “Only my strength and persistence will open the door.”

Several days later, after multiple periods of alternating rest, arguing, and failed attempts to open the door of Truth, the Owl and the Elephant were joined by another wanderer in the Magic Forest. The Burdened Donkey, a descendant of the very colt that carried Jesus the Messiah into Jerusalem on that famous Passover week, had found her way through the forest to the Door in the Wall. Her entire life had been one of compassion and advocacy for the burdens of others; as well it should be for one of her noble ancestry. She cared nothing for power or size, though in all honesty she thought a little wealth would have been nice, in order to have something to share with those who had nothing at all.     donkey

The Burdened Donkey readily became part of the group, despite stating quite firmly that the others were wasting their time. She insisted that if they gathered more seekers to the wall, whoever – or whatever — controlled the Magic Forest would have to hear their combined voices seeking Truth, and unlock the door.

Weeks later, our trio of Truth Seekers were each even more determined than ever that he or she alone had the right answer to opening the Door. But they were still on the wrong side of the Gateway to Truth when a beautiful, radiant human-like creature seemed to just suddenly appear in their midst. OK, sorry – that phrase was a little too Biblical for a fairy tale. The Dreamer/Adventurer appeared like a mirage taking shape before their eyes (Better?). This rare being was androgynous, (a blend of male/female, not either-or) but only when appearing in its magical, ephemeral state. It will be correct to refer to the being as s/he.

enlifghtened being

S/he was actually more able to see and understand the Wall and the Gateway to Truth better than the other three combined. Being a dreamer, s/he could imagine possible solutions from ideas that the others had overlooked, because even though they had a lot of combined knowledge and experience, they lacked the gift of imagination. Because they therefore lacked the gift of dreaming, they also lacked the magnificent will to risk adventure. So the Dreamer might have added surprising and wonderful routes to the search for Truth, but the four Seekers nevertheless each continued to argue that their own talent was the sole means of opening the Gate, and to individually try old and new ways to unlock the door.

Almost another year passed, and one late night our quartet of seekers was once again outside the door of Truth. As usual, the Owl was perched on his oak tree limb, his back to the Door. The Elephant stood in front of the owl and to his right, where there happened to be more room to accommodate his huge size. To the owl’s left, and facing the Elephant, was the Burdened Donkey. Weary from her many tasks and the futility of debate; she reclined on a mat of fallen leaves. The Dreamer/Adventurer was directly facing the Owl, but far enough back not to invade the sight line between the Donkey and the Elephant. The dreamer, therefore, was the only one who consistently looked forward, to the Gateway of Truth. This pattern had become the default physical setup for their frequent, but fruitless, debates.

By now, each member of the group was unshakably entrenched in their own belief about the correct route to a solution, and the debates were bitter and filled with accusations that cast aspersions on ancestry, intellect and integrity. In other words, the debates had become ugly, and personal.

An aside: Rumor has it that this is when and where major basic political views were founded and named: The Traditionalist (the owl, wise but always looking back), the Donkey (the liberal, burdened with concern for the poor and oppressed), and the Elephant (with wealth, power and size, who was channeling Puritan predestinarianism in his belief that these things indicated that he alone was a Chosen One). The Dreamer/Adventurer, though strong in the days of our Founders, would have no counterpart within the bounds of this rumor, representing a view that is no longer taken seriously by our rational world. But I believe the rumor to be completely unfounded and without merit. After all, even in a fairy tale there is no discernible connection between the Gateway to Truth and political activity.

To bring our fairy tale to its conclusion…as our quartet was fiercely and loudly debating the reasons for their failure to solve the problem of the locked door of Truth, they were joined by an excited colony of bats, all clamoring about the Gateway to Truth. The bats had somehow heard of the Gateway phenomenon, but being blind, were not even aware that they were just outside that much-to-be-desired place. By using their sonar, however, they sensed the presence of our Seekers and inquired of them if they knew how to find the Gateway.


Rendered both cynical and uncaring of others by their prolonged debate, the four Seekers each offhandedly responded to the bats:

“Of course. As always, it is directly behind me,” said the Owl.

“Can’t you see it?” the Donkey responded crossly, then…”Oh, sorry. I am so sorry for your disability. Please, can you locate it if I describe where it is? It is directly to my left.”

To which the Elephant trumpeted a huge blast of disgust, remarking “Even my strength has not opened that door! How do you think that a colony of tiny, blind bats is going to achieve this? But never mind. Be my guest! Go ahead and try. The door is to my right.”

The Dreamer, withdrawn and wan after suffering prolonged ridicule and rejection, was only barely aware of the presence of the bats. As usual, s/he was staring dreamily at the gate, imagining all the wondrous truth that lay just beyond. S/he finally murmured: “You are all wrong. The door is in front of ME.”

As each member of the group spoke his, her or its truth, a solid gold nugget appeared in the hand (trunk, wing or hoof) of the speaker. By the time the Dreamer said the final word, all four were staring dumbfounded into their respective appendages. Then, as one entity, they all ran toward the gate, golden shapes held before them. One by one, each tried to open the gate with their piece of gold, turning it first this way and then that. They tried inserting the gold pieces in a different order, then with yet other permutations of that order. Alas, the gold pieces did not unlock the door of Truth.

Dropping In a sorry heap of adrenaline withdrawal, the group had finally returned to their original places. The bats, having been quiet as they tried to interpret the chaos of sound and activity, now tried to question the Seekers. “What happened? What did you do? Did the Door open?”

As a final gesture of complete submission to their failure, the Seekers turned the pieces of gold over to the bats. “Here,” they told them. “Follow our directions to the Door, which has a key hole but no key. Take these pieces of gold, since they appeared when we told you where the door was, but they do not seem to be of any use.”

“But you each told us something different,” challenged the bats. “How do we know which one of you was telling the truth, or if any truth is in you at all? How do we know where the door really is located?”

The Seekers looked around, and recognized that they had fallen into their accustomed formation. So they told the bats that they would repeat their directions, and the bats should use their own bat sonar to identify where each speaker was located. They could then use at least three points to triangulate the location of the door from the positions of the speakers, combined with their spoken directions. “We have all told you the truth,” they chorused.

And of course, the bats did just that and of course, it worked. They were now hanging on the wall, as well as on and around the door. They located the latch and the keyhole. But also “of course,” they could not open the door, either. But they kept touching the pieces of gold, and then reaching into the keyhole, feeling around and chattering to one another in bat-speak. The air became tense with anticipation, for it was well known that the blind bats understood the magic of the forest better than any other beings. Unlike other beings, they felt things about the environment, and heard more. Suddenly, the bats came together in an outbreak of cooperation and began to reposition the pieces of gold. The Magic Forest once again intervened and did its thing, and the pieces of gold became welded together in the shape of a key. The key opened the Gateway of Truth, and they all (including the original Seekers) went through the Door to the land of Truth and lived happily ever after.

golden key