Expectations vs. Promises

I friend recently was wondering on social media about the difference between expectations and promises, so I thought I’d give it a stab.

First, I would start by looking at the roots of both words (etymology). Both are derived from Latin. With expectations coming from exspecto (to see out) and promise from promittere (to send forth). What does this tell us? Both indicate the direction of movement is from inside the person to outside the person. But with promise we are making a declaration as Merriam Webster wrote: “that binds the person who made it, either in honor, conscience, or law, to do or forebear a certain act.” So the declaration that is made in a promise is for some future act. ‘I promise to love you’ is a blanket declaration of future acts of love. Of course, it may be helpful to articulate more specifics about what those acts of love entail. However, it is never possible to fully state what that promise will mean in action, as the possibilities that you will face are nearly limitless. A promise starts with an intention inside of us, that becomes public when we actually make the promise.

What is the inside to outside movement of expectation? We have a hope or desire that someone will behave toward us in a specific manner and we are on the lookout for that hope or desire to be fulfilled by that person or people. The key question is whether that person or people made a promise to us or not. Reading further the definition of promise from Webster: ‘it is a declaration that gives the person to whom it is made the right to expect or claim the performance or forbearance of the act.’ Without the freely given promise made by the other person, any expectation that we hold would be free-floating and baseless.

A skill worth developing would be the power in dialogue to elicit and invite people to make promises. If you find that you are often having expectations of people that are disappointed, the best course is to have a conversation with that person, not so much about your disappointments, but about what that person freely and willingly might promise you. With that framework in place, in the event that the promise is not kept, you have created the space to discuss the broken promise.

November 18, 2018  Leave a comment

Responsibility and Meaning

We don’t abandon our pursuits because we despair of ever perfecting them.

Epictetus, Discourses, 1.2.37b

Epictetus is being generous in my experience. I know that I often abandon pursuits before ever starting them in fear that they will fail or fall short of what I imagine. One consequence of this seems to be that I also minimize the amount of struggle involved in bringing something new into the world. The world is indifferent to my gifts. To even start a new, worthy endeavor I have to muster the faith that it is a gift; that it is important to invest my time and energy in, that if nothing else, the act of birthing the idea into the world will be the next step in my transformation into the potential ‘best’ me I intuit is possible.

Jordan Peterson talks extensively about the connection of the experience of meaning and the shouldering of responsibility. To take the leap, I find I must marshal as many reasons as I can invent to pursue the path. A life of meaning is one of those. Necessity is another. A sense that God is watching and cheering me on. The potential of acclaim and inspiration that my actions will generate in others. A legacy for my family and my community. I can use all of these to prod me on.

August 10, 2018  Leave a comment

Where are the cracks?

Apply yourself to thinking through difficulties–hard times can be softened, tight squeezes widened, and heavy loads made lighter for those who can apply the right pressure.

Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind, 10.4b

Having faith in myself I find can be difficult. Problems loom large, the way forward is most often blocked or cluttered with obstacles. Seneca here wants to convince me that by ‘thinking through’ difficulties, there is a way to make it. The times may still be hard, but a little softer; the tight cracks can be expanded enough to squeeze through; the heavy loads can be lightened enough to be lifted.

Thinking is hard work! I must marshal my focus and limit distractions that crowd around wanting to be the center of attention. Like just now, I stared out the window watching some butterflies flit around our backyard butterfly bush and then on to thinking how much it will eventually cost to remediate the mold I’m certain is in the back walls of the house. Anything but thinking about my most immediate difficulty: what will I now do to make the most money in the most efficient way possible? The work feels daunting, but perfection is not required, good enough will do. Time to feed my FILDI some oranges!

August 6, 2018  Leave a comment

Humble Art

I’ve been checking out the Daily Stoic, which is a ‘daily devotional’ that for every day of the year, has a short quote from one of the Stoic philosophers (primarily Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, or Epictetus). I thought that I would make my own comments on the quotes from days that speak to me.

“Love the humble art you have learned, and take rest in it. Pass through the remainder of your days as one who whole-heartedly entrusts all possessions to the gods, making yourself neither a tyrant nor a slave to any person.’ — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.31

In the original Latin: “Artem, quam didicisti, diligito et in ea acquiesceto: quod autem vitae super est, id ita exigito, ut qui Deo omnia ex toto animo commiseris, neque ullius hominis aut dominum aut servum te praebeto.”

‘Hold dear the art you have learned’ but entrust all to God. Belief and rely on my own capacities, and let the fruit be as they may, whether they be 10, 50, or 100-fold. In relations with others, be neither a tyrant nor a slave…regardless of my outer situation, the tyranny or slavery is internal. I’m to be free in my interpretations and relations to the outer realities.

July 10, 2018  Leave a comment

A Ripened Olive

“Pass through this brief patch of time in harmony with nature, and come to your final resting place gracefully, just as a ripened olive might drop, praising the earth that nourished it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 4.48.2

I struggle against nature. I want to live forever, in this body (assuming it can be kept healthy and vibrant). The struggle against evil and death is not at odds with harmony with nature and acceptance that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. God ‘set[s] before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction… choose life in order that you may live.’

As a believer in Jesus and his mission, I find many of my fellow Christian travelers seeming to be eager for death, in that they would prefer being in heaven than living in this vale of tears. Of course, Paul himself struggled with this question:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.

For Paul, the question comes down to what is best for those he’s around, and he comes down on the ‘remain’ side very strongly. Perhaps here is a clue. The ‘why’ behind my choice to stay is important. If it is to stay alive for selfish reasons, that may not be worth the tears. To remain for the benefit of others, moment-by-moment, is a worthy goal.

January 19, 2017  Leave a comment

Only begin

“I am your teacher and you are learning in my school. My aim is to bring you to completion, unhindered, free from compulsive behavior, unrestrained, without shame, free, flourishing, and happy, looking to God in things great and small—your aim is to learn and diligently practice all these things. Why then don’t you complete the work, if you have the right aim and I have both the right aim and right preparation? What is missing? . . . The work is quite feasible, and is the only thing in our power. . . . Let go of the past. We must only begin. Believe me and you will see.” —EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 2.19.29–34


Our culture teaches us that we must be perfect, that we must arrive (but we know not where), that we must look good/feel good/be right/be in control 24-7; but this thinking is a trap that only entangles us.

The compulsions of looking good, feeling good, being right, being in control are the idols of this age, and perhaps all ages. They are compensatory, strategies for filling in what we feel is lacking in us; a way to cover over the gaping hole in our souls. They are focused on the past, what has happened to us, the hurts and faults and imperfections.

As Epictetus coaches, we must let go of the past to be free, and only begin again. The wisdom of many traditions teaches us this truth. The Rule of St. Benedict is one of them. Staying present, unhindered, free. Answering the call to be ourselves. That is enough. That is fulfilling. That is what we are made for.

January 17, 2017  Leave a comment

A perturbed mind

“Keep this thought at the ready at daybreak, and through the day and night—there is only one path to happiness, and that is in giving up all outside of your sphere of choice, regarding nothing else as your possession, surrendering all else to God and Fortune.” —EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 4.4.39

External events over the last few days have disturbed my mind, my peace. Realizing that I only control my own choices comes with it a vulnerable feeling–a sense that others can do unto me things that I don’t want them to do. The thoughts come fast and furious–What if Person A does Act B? How will I survive? How can I cope with the devastation? Even writing about it brings a feeling of dread and wanting to reject those people that seem to have the power to hurt me by their actions, their thoughts, their choices.

My perturbed mind has difficulty focusing, at once wanting to distract from what it fears, and at the same time unable to turn away. ‘Surrendering all else to God and Fortune’ seems impossible but is the heart of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

I can only change my choices, my mind, how I interpret people and event around me. I can’t change others, their actions, their choices. Try as I might, regardless of how much I want to. My first task is to see to my own serenity and peace of mind so that I can be in a position to influence, to look ahead, and take action with people to sway and persuade them about living and choosing differently.

I reaffirm my commitment to serenity, to a placid mind. To following Epictetus’s advice to give up all that is outside my sphere of choice.

January 12, 2017  Leave a comment

Locus of Control

“Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing. We don’t control our body, property, reputation, position, and, in a word, everything not of our own doing. Even more, the things in our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unobstructed, while those not in our control are weak, slavish, can be hindered, and are not our own.” —EPICTETUS, ENCHIRIDION, 1.1–2

Being indistinct about the reality of what we control and what we don’t control is the source of much mischief in my life and of those I know. I want to control my children, others around me, the person driving the car in front of me, the cat, the neighbor, the weather(!), on and on. I want to control other people’s actions: what they say to me, what they do around me, what they think. As it always fails, I would hope that I would learn. But keeping this distinct is something I wake up to over and over again.

As I read Epictetus’s list of what we control: our opinion, choice, desire, aversion. I think our culture still has a hold on the first two and would agree that our opinion and our choice we control. The second two, however, aren’t acknowledged as aspects of our life that we control. Take desire. My experience of desire is that it finds and controls me, that it comes and goes, and isn’t subject to my control the way I experience opinion or choice, which self-evidently it is clear that we choose. And similarly, aversion, which is opposite of desire, the anti-desire. Both of these show up as already in the background and not something I actively choose.

A powerful way to live is to live as if I choose everything. That if I roll the video of an event far enough, I will be clear that I was ‘at cause’ of whatever happens around me. The realization that, had I chosen differently along the way, the current results would be very different.

Our American culture is moving with momentum in the opposite direction of Epictetus on what we control. More on that another time.

January 10, 2017  Leave a comment

Education in Freedom

Still ruminating on the Epictetus quote in the post from t days ago. I’ve posted about Tranquility and Fearlessness. Now on to freedom.

I googled ‘freedom quotes’ and on Good Reads came on this quote from Jim Morrison:

“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.”
Jim Morrison

This ‘personal revolution’ is what Epictetus was pointing to. The corruption process that Morrison is talking about is a comprehensive world-view shift. Just as Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and were cast out of the Garden of Eden, we each follow the same arc, what we could think of as ‘original sin’.

The transformation is comprehensive in both directions. In falling from innocence, we put on an act or racket, we trade our authentic True Self for a role, we numb out from the moment, moving into the future in anxiety and into the past through guilt. Freedom is sourced in this moment. I can only be free now, and now, and now, for as long as I can stay present. While anxiety and guilt take us out of the moment, the experience of being present in the moment is an experience of wonder.

The route to an experience in this moment of freedom is being willing, and actually paying the price of surrendering the payoffs that the Groveler and the Shadow get from their respective rackets. Part of the contemplation Epictetus suggests is figuring out what those payoffs are.



January 5, 2017  Leave a comment


In my last post, I quoted from the Stoic Epictetus about the three fruits of true education: Tranquility, Fearlessness, and Freedom. I want to take up Fearlessness. Is Epictetus really suggesting that we can arrive at a place where we don’t have fear?

I aspire to fear-less in my life. Even to arrive at fearlessness, but I have some way to go.

Fear is hardwired into our circuitry. Our survival was tied to our ability to respond appropriately to risks in the environment. Hard wiring for fear was evolutionarily adaptive.

Most modern philosophers point to the fear of death as the ultimate fear. To get to fearlessness requires facing squarely one’s mortality and our finite span of days. The Stoic philosophers in particular counsel a contemplation of the shortness of life and a living in the present moment as antidotes to fear.

Your True Self has no fear because the True Self touches the Eternal in the present moment. You can notice within a sense of infinite space when you look beyond the contents of your thoughts and focus on the context that contains your thoughts. The Groveler and Shadow however live very much in fear. The Groveler in the fear of loss—looking bad, feeling bad, being wrong, being out of control. The loss of the ‘goods’ that it isovels for. The Shadow wields fear as a tool and weapon.

In the moment of fearing, the automatic tendency is to resist the fear, but resistance gives the fear power. The opposite is what is called for. Accepting the fear as it is, for what it is, and fully experiencing it. To breathe (literally) into the fear will transform the experience from fear into excitement and anticipation. Try it and see. This is not knowledge that is good for anything other than pointing to an experience that must be proved by living it.

January 5, 2017  Leave a comment

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