Expectations by Tom Sullivan
When I was thirteen my family took a trip to Yellowstone . We loaded into a station wagon and drove west from our home in suburban Connecticut . The trip was partly intended for my father to get out of the office and travel. It was also a way to visit prospective colleges for my sister who, like the two sisters before her, would soon be attending college. This next step in her life was a given. In our family it was just what you did. No one ever considered not attending college.
Once we entered the plains states, my father shifted from driving on interstates to meandering down secondary roads. The “good” colleges had been visited and everyone was ready for different scenery. As we stopped along these backroads to stretch, refuel, and grab various sundries, I started to notice a strange pattern developing. Standing outside a small market or gas station, my father would strike up a conversation with fellow travelers. This in itself was not unusual; my father was an amiable person who took warmly to everyone, including strangers. What struck me as odd was the mono-topic and one-sided nature of these conversations. During each, some random person would stand nodding as my father related where his daughters were currently enrolled.
Standing off to the side I was confused, wondering why my father thought that his listener was interested in this information. It had little if any relation to their lives. They just stood there and listened, unwilling to break some unspoken travelers etiquette. Some probably had kids in prison and really didn’t walk to talk about children. The listener would eventually mutter some pleasantry, wish my father a good journey, and amble off to his car.
The kids in my family all eventually went to and graduated from good colleges, eventually becoming surgeons, lawyers, and the like. Our family desperately needed a stripper or a teenage marriage to provide some counterweight to the overbearing achievement mantra, but no one was up to the challenge that such a rebellion entailed. The older half of us still use these degrees, while the younger half has shifted away from professional pursuits.
Recently I was talking with a friend whose ex-husband had grown up in a family that owned a lumber mill. He chose not to take over the family business, preferring instead to pursue other options. The fallout from choosing otherwise created an enormous rift between father and son. Listening to this tale, I pictured a backwoods version of Dallas with sawdust-covered men arguing outside a crumbling mill.
No one in the family ever thought to ask the son if he wanted to spend his days cutting logs. They just assumed that he did. Such assumptions are absurdly common in our culture. The closest this guy ever came to being a lumberman was developing a serious axe to grind.
Listening to this story my mind flashed back to those gas station encounters so many years ago. I hadn’t thought about that trip in twenty-seven years. Those one-sided “conversations” with strangers now began to make sense.
I realized that my friend’s ex-father-in-law had equated his own success in life with his son taking over the family business. Regardless of the son’s obvious and stated lack of interest in running a sawmill, the father believed that successfully raising a son meant grooming him to follow in his footsteps, thereby upholding the family tradition. The son’s choices and actions became, in effect, a yardstick for the father’s own success. Once these parameters of success were violated, all hell broke loose.
Finding success through the actions of others is a dangerous gamble. It’s likely to fail, and can even cause harm. While Billy’s dodging bombs in the sand his mother is sipping coffee in the kitchen with the next door neighbor and cooing, “Billy’s in Iraq and I’m so proud.” There’s nothing wrong with the military; for people truly interested in the military the results can be positive. But for those who aren’t, like the kid that wants to dance (or God forbid the one who has the misfortune of landing in the military family as a gay person) the results are usually grim.
Very few people are lucky enough to avoid the blade of other people’s expectations. These guilt-driven “requests” seep out of small towns, suburbs, cities, and anywhere else that people dwell. They come out of rich families, poor families, and everything in between. Unless you live alone on a desert island you’re probably not exempt. Expectations create the confusion that sends innocent girls into those terrifying beauty pageants.
These aren’t just idle musings. There’s actually a lot at stake, for both individuals and the people that surround them. The impacts of living up to expectations can be disastrous. Look, for instance, at the Bush family, a brood filled with ex-presidents, governors, and the like. Their world is a high powered “confusionscape” filled with entitlement, Yale graduations, and visiting sheiks. It’s a lot of expectation to live up to if you’re unfortunate enough to be born into a family like that.
Now look at George W, who has absolutely no clue who he is. The macho posturing is like heavy makeup – it’s a way to mask insecurity that in the end only serves to reveal that insecurity. Secure people have no need for machismo. George never realized that he didn’t have to follow the family path, a slippery one paved with oil-wealth and the absence of empathy.
These days W’s sitting in the Oval Office with his finger on the button while he reads a copy of Middle Eastern Invasions For Dummies. Given the world of confusion he was reared in one could almost feel sorry for the guy, being in so far over his head, if thousands of people hadn’t already died.
W’s probably wondering what happened and daydreaming about being the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. God knows we should have given him the job. Whenever I see that bewildered look on his face I realize that I could have been in a similar place if I hadn’t sensed what was going on and refused to comply.
Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned from the past eight years of darkness. Be careful with your expectations, and start listening.