Zero Expectations

Ravi_Varma-Princess_Damayanthi_talking_with_Royal_Swan_about_NalaWhat can we expect from those we love? Don’t they owe us anything at all? In that case, why get married, why have families, why not just live alone?

A valid question from one of our members this week.

The Gita suggests that we have no expectations of anyone, that expectation is what leads to disappointment and unhappiness. But as women we all tend to expect love and affection, consideration, dignity and respect from those we spend our lives tending to, caring for and being devoted to.

We often put our own ambitions on hold to support the dreams and ambitions of our loved ones. If we still manage to pursue our dreams we do so in the rare moments we have to ourselves, the tiny gaps that occur between making sure everyone else is taken care of.

So, if after all the sacrifice and the silent heroic struggle to appear strong and calm and content despite every obstacle, we are told that we can expect absolutely nothing in return, that in fact, it would be foolish to do so, there is definitely a feeling of resentment.

Why bother? Why spend a lifetime dedicated to others when we may as well live a life of spiritual and intellectual and physical freedom? What’s in it for us?

One of our members suggested that it is the struggle we go through each day to keep our families healthy and happy and running smoothly that helps us grow, that without the constant conflict between our individual needs and desires and the needs of others, we would remain content and complacent.

But couldn’t we grow a lot faster if we had the time and the luxury of dedicating our efforts to self-realization rather than the mundane responsibilities and the often draining juggling of personalities and problems that family life entails?

I think of my own goals and ambitions. While I have a full-time career as a professor of education, a side career as a writer, a nonprofit to help disadvantaged youth, and the budding ambition to study and understand ancient texts, all of these come a far second to my son and my husband and their desires and ambitions.

This has been a fact of my existence from the start, as it is for most women I know. It isn’t something you argue about or debate or question. It just is. It’s ok to have ambitions and to follow them since we are modern women, but there is an unspoken agreement that our family’s ambitions trump our own.

My husband’s music, his teaching career, his performances, all of these take priority over my own activities. My son’s education, his study time, his plans take precedence over mine. And it isn’t just in terms of career that we willingly take a back seat. We cater to our loved ones’ wishes and preferences in every way. We try not to make too many demands, we adjust, we work around things. And in return, we expect if not gratitude, then some reciprocation, some affection and some willingness to ensure that we are happy and cared for as well.

All too often, this simple expectation is not met. And so resentment begins to build, which turns into anger, and then more often than not, an explosion of tears, arguments or both.

The Gita advises us that the best way to avoid this is to have zero expectations. This is a tough one. It brings us back to an earlier topic about the nature of love and how a love that is tied to expectation is not really love at all. So if we do love our husband and our children as we insist we do, then we have to completely separate any sense of expectation from that love.

This is easier to do when it comes to our children. I can calmly say that my son owes me nothing and be content with the satisfaction that comes from being a good mother. I would never confront him and demand that he love me more. But it seems impossible when it comes to my husband. I don’t get that same sense of contentment merely from being a good wife. I expect him to be a good husband in return. If I don’t feel that he is being one, I am disappointed, disgruntled, angry, emotional.

But is the solution to avoid relationships since they create expectation? Would we indeed dedicate our lives to the pursuit of self realization if we remained free? Or would we spend our days bemoaning our loneliness, dreaming of finding a soul mate and longing for a home and family? Hard to say, but at least for me, the latter was true until I met my husband. Having escaped the confines of marriage once, I could have easily dedicated my life to acquiring knowledge and fulfilling my ambitions. Instead, I chose to find someone to share my life with, knowing full well the sacrifices that entails. What right do I have then, to complain about a situation I chose deliberately? Clearly, with all its inherent compromises, it was one I preferred to being alone.

We have to work within the confines of our current reality, which for our little group is being householders with relationships and responsibilities, which we have no intention of abandoning. We have to work on separating love and expectation until we can love without resentment and without restraint. We have to allow our husbands the same freedom that we allow our children, loving them for who they are and not punishing them because they are not who we want them to be.

Our extremely challenging goal then, going forward, is to live and love with zero expectations.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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4 Responses to Zero Expectations

  1. Mani Barigela says:

    A beautiful and relevant article. What I think is ‘as a person leading life in a society (with pulls and pushes from persons around you) I try to remember always what Sri Krishna has said ACTION IS THY DUTY FRUIT IS NOT THY CONCERN. He said leave the result to me without EXPECTATIONS. Apart from Love he also said KINDNESS, EMPATHY, FORGIVENESS AND finally PUNISHMENT(when a person cannot correct himself). He said not to be selfish to run away from DHARMA for self-realization.’ THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR VALUABLE THOUGHTS.

  2. kiranmayisrinivas says:

    Nice thought provoking article, some of my thoughts..
    If one can realize how a Male and Female express Love differently, this struggle wouldn’t exist.
    To my understanding in this world predominantly we women are more expressive, sensitive and reactive than men.
    WE like sacrificing, WE like giving them priority, WE want to be good and that’s the way we know to express how invaluable they are in our lives and then expect them to appreciate it…
    Coming to the question “why have all these relationships then”…for me and may be for many of us there would be a huge EMPTY space if not for these relationships and attaining SELF-REALIZATION might be even more difficult.
    We need to practice this highly difficult way of living with Zero expectation, but we are all strong women so we should be confident enough that we can do it…

    • jb says:

      Thank you for responding. I totally agree with you that it is we who choose to do these things. The problem as you say is that we then expect appreciation. And yes, perhaps you are right, the emptiness that comes from avoiding relationships could very well inhibit progress and self realization.

  3. Pingback: The Green Study Spa: Take a Moment and Put Your Feet Up | The Green Study

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