Monday, May 18, 2009

Great Expectations

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

-Soren Kierkeguarrd

We have an expectation about life. I have noticed it in myself, and in others. As if we were living according to a mathematical formula, with "x" being effort and "y" being the results, we function as though we live in a linear graph:

x{effort} = y{results}

We believe that if we put in an amount of resources (money, time, effort), we should have a return that is equivalent. If we are living well and wisely, the graph of our lives could be drawn as a neat, straight line leading steadily upwards.

If we have children and we homeschool, we think we just need to adjust the formula. Maybe with three kids, we have to use: 3x = y. We need more effort, because of the children, but we still expect direct and predictable results from our efforts. And if we are lucky, we might even enjoy benefits that are greater than our initial investment. As the saying goes, we reap what we sow.

This is what we tend to expect when we invest in the stock market, when we buy a product or a home, and when we work on a job. We believe that success is largely a predictable and controllable event. Self-help books encourage us to think this way, too, as they show us what to do for the results we want.

When we look backwards over history, we view history in this way. We see historical events as the logical accumulation of investments and choices made by people prior to them. In retrospect, the events seem likely and probable. Another linear graph. Another straight line.

The problem is, that's not the world we find ourselves in. The greatest historical events seemed highly improbable, even impossible to the people who lived them. They were completely unexpected. Think of the fall of Rome. Nobody, and I mean nobody, expected it to disappear. The idea that barbarian hordes would erode its boundaries and bring it down was utterly insensible. And who thought that a group of rough fishermen with an itinerant preacher (who was crucified for creating a disturbance) were the most significant people in the Roman Empire? Even more, that their ideas would become the most important of all in the history of our planet and their writings the most widely read of any books? The very idea would have been insane.

The struggling and rebellious American colonies (a frequent destination for criminals and troublemakers) would become the greatest nation and a torchbearer for freedom. Who expected that?

The first world war was supposed to end in a few weeks. It wasn't over for thirty years.

Do you know anyone who predicted the stock market crash of 1929? How about our own 911? What did we all feel as we watched two planes hit our skyscrapers? Utter shock. We watched it over and over. It was incomprehensible.

When we look back, we see how it came about. We can say, oh yeah, that's why this happened. But at the time, what was being noticed, what was being measured, what was being invested, what was in the conscious minds of people? Nothing that would lead us to think that the unthinkable might happen.

As homeschooling moms, we live in small worlds that are much the same. We work with the expectation that our success is a predictable, manageable commodity. It can be achieved through the right curriculum, the right methods, and the steady application of disciplined effort. There are days when this works fine.

On other days, we are assaulted by the unexpected. We cannot believe that this is our life. How could this be happening? Our sense of reality and of justice is completely overturned. Why is it that we are thwarted in our plans once again? Can nothing run smoothly? Why can't we just build a nice little school-life in our homes? Is that so terribly difficult? Before long, we are thinking that something is wrong, either with our plans or our children or ourselves. Something must be wrong, for it to look like this.

Nothing is wrong.

You are living in a world full of surprises. Everyone is surprised, frequently. We are all scrambling, at least a little bit, to find our way and to cope with things we had not anticipated. We almost never feel like we are on top of it all. What I have come to understand is that success doesn't feel that way. It doesn't mean being in control. It isn't a calm, orderly process to achieve outcomes.

To be successful, you will have to stretch yourself and do new things. That means you will be learning on the job. That means you will make mistakes. That means there will be many events you did not predict. Your brain is full of learning how to do all of the new things required of you. The rest of it, you can't anticipate.

Success feels like juggling, like being in over your head, like a breathless obstacle course, more than you had ever suspected it could. Because success means you are stretching yourself, trying new things, and growing in more than one way, you will rarely feel successful if you truly are.


  1. This is right where I am today ... with school nearly ended for another year, with its untidy "successes" under-belt and my being extremely uncomfortable with its appearance (as it is, the whole process), this piece meets me.

    I am looking ahead (needing to take a break really, though) to next year, and feeling the Lord's tug to take a breath and to relax and ease into the summer sun, and am trying to do so ... but the journey is unfinished and knowing that it is creates a temptation to look around the bend to high school in three months.

    What can I expect? The landscape still untidy? The process still like shifting shadows? "It doesn't mean being in control. It isn't a calm, orderly process to achieve outcomes."

    Success means surprise? It is learning? Adapting? Stretching? Bending? A lifestyle of calisthenics? Hoo-ha! :) All the better!

    Did Michelangelo make messes? Ohh, It would help me to think that he did.


  2. Thanks for sharing, JL. My guess is that most of us have felt this way from time to time. I know I have.

  3. Excellent! Well-written and thought-provoking, and as usual encouraging. Thank you.


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