Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Unrealistic Expectations

It is easy and not at all uncommon to become the victim of unrealistic expectations. It happens when friends or clients or even our own children develop mythologies about our power and wisdom. We do not want to disappoint people who think highly of us, even when they think more highly of us than is justified by fact. It feels good, initially, to be put on a pedestal, but eventually "pedestal people" encounter significant dilemmas when expectations exceed capability.

This can happen to some degree to almost anyone, but I do not know of any two professions where practitioners are more likely to get into trouble over unrealistic expectations than clergy and doctors. It does not take very long to discover that a pedestal is about as lonely a prison as any other limited space. One of the greatest dangers of being the object of unrealistic expectation is when we begin to believe the mythologies people have about us. We begin to work hard to fulfil those expectations. We neglect other important aspects of our life, such as family and friends and social obligations in the community, in order to do (or appear to do) all the miraculous things that are expected of us. I have seen people neglect their own physical, spiritual and emotional health trying to fulfil unrealistic expectations. Marriages have fallen apart because expectations drove a husband or a wife to do more good than was good for them.

Another by-product of being trapped by unrealistic expectations is a growing sense of guilt about not being able to do all that is expected. And yet another by-product is the temptation to fake it, even to lie to ourselves and others rather than admit we are in over our heads - that we are just not that powerful, wise or tireless. When you allow the thoughtless expectations and the unrealistic mythologies of others to become your personal agenda, you are headed for some very serious problems in some important areas in your life. You may know people who are living that kind of life, or you may be people who are caught in that trap. It is much easier to get on the pedestal than it is to step off.

It can happen to almost anyone; doctor, lawyer, clergyperson, social worker, banker, community "do-gooder", parent, teacher. You name the profession and I can tell you how it can happen. There is one unchanging truth that should be a mantra for anyone: "What lies beyond my power also lies beyond my responsibility". Let that thought play across the backdrop of your mind when you are considering expectations that you or others have of you.

When the Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock was briefly the acting dean at Phillips Seminary, the secretary came in his office and told him there was someone to see him. A woman came in and asked him to come out to the parking lot. He followed her to the parking lot and her car. She opened the back door, and slumped in the back seat was her brother. He had been a senior at the University of Oklahoma. He had been in a bad car wreck and in a coma eight months. She had quit her job as a schoolteacher to take care of him. All of their resources were gone. She opened the door and said, "I'd like for you to heal him". Dr. Craddock said, "I can pray for him. And I can pray with you. But I do not have the gift of healing". She got behind the wheel and said, "Then what in the world do you do?" And she drove off. Dr. Craddock said he went back into his study, stared at his books and tried to forget what she had said.

No matter who you are, if you are on anyone's pedestal, get off. It is not a safe place to be.

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