Expect Nothing

 A photo of a silhouette of two hands holding up something heart-shaped (the common Valentine's Day-style heart icon, not like the shape of a human heart, in case you needed the clarification) in front of a sunset. The heart is aligned with the sun, so the sunbeams and color gradation appear to be radiating from the heart. The white serif font says, "Do everything with a good heart and expect nothing in return and you will never be disappointed." The source is "Power of Positivity."
 A photo of a silhouette of two hands holding up something heart-shaped (the common Valentine’s Day-style heart icon, not like the shape of a human heart, in case you needed the clarification) in front of a sunset. The heart is aligned with the sun, so the sunbeams and color gradation appear to be radiating from the heart. The white serif font says, “Do everything with a good heart and expect nothing in return and you will never be disappointed.” The source is “Power of Positivity.”

Did you ever read The Giving Tree?

It’s the story of a tree that is happy to become a useless stump after a little boy has used up all its resources without ever reciprocating her kindness or apologizing for the impact of his actions.

The tree doesn’t feel disappointment or regret about all the apples it could have produced, because that would mean that it expected something in return from the person who stripped it of its vitality, and that would mean that the tree couldn’t really have been good-hearted!

We need the tree to be good-hearted in order to want it to be happy, because happiness should only belong to those who we think deserve it, right?

People who insist on interpreting that lovely little story as “unhealthy” just have bad, bitter hearts.

The message in this macro suggests that ultimately, it’s your motives that really matter more than your actions.  If your heart feels good when you do something, that is 100% of the battle.

Also, your (lack of) expectations should really outweigh other people’s actual responses to what you’ve done with all your good-heartedness.

Your expectation of no reciprocation or acknowledgment is more important than the possibility that the person/people you’re doing goodness at might want to a) do something nice for you in return or b) express dissatisfaction with what you so well-meaningly chose to do in the first place.

Why should their feelings matter? We’re talking about your inner peace!

At any rate, the real end game here is avoiding disappointment. Disappointment is the worst! You don’t want to have any more of that in your life than absolutely necessary, am I right?

Expectations lead to disappointment, which is bad, so don’t expect things.

Not having to learn how to deal productively with disappointment is an important part of becoming a well-rounded and responsible person.

While originally working on this post, I had the vague sense of having read that Shel Silverstein himself was kind of ambivalent about The Giving Tree. I thought that he may have viewed it as sad, or at least didn’t necessarily see it as the easy-breezy life advice it’s often taken for.

This New York Times article is the best I could come up with to validate my fuzzy semi-recollection, and the only relevant Silverstein quote it provides is simply that the book was “about a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes.”

Not exactly a resounding endorsement of the tree’s caring nature, but also not a condemnation of the boy. 

It’s not ethical to speculatively diagnose people with mental illnesses (particularly dead people (and even more particularly dead people I never met)) and yet I would not be shocked if Silverstein struggled with depression.

His child-directed work typically counterbalances its fundamental darkness with humor, hope, and whimsy, but that darkness is pervasive.  Even his simplest pieces often have multiple layers, and the overall ethos of his poetry collections feels subversive in a way that is unlikely to have stemmed from a life of persistent contentment. 

My reason for bringing up his background is that the person behind the creation of The Giving Tree, a book that is famously used to reinforce the message from this macro, probably didn’t view it as a saccharine or straightforward text.

The fact that people tend to view the book as either sweet or wholly unsavory  just demonstrates our cultural tendency to disengage from nuance.

We can’t know his thoughts for sure, but it seems unlikely that The Giving Tree was just a weirdly earnest exception to his characteristically winking jadedness.

The poignancy of the ending isn’t because the tree always did the right thing or because the boy-turned-old-man learned a valuable lesson.

It’s sad because it’s an honest, descriptive representation of a common and bittersweet dynamic. 

The tree is a metaphor (gasp!) but the literal story rings true. Givers are at risk of giving themselves to death to takers who never questioned their own right to have.

It seems to me that the moral of the story is not to lionize either character, but to question them both. You don’t really want to be the dead, devoted stump or the oblivious ingrate. 

(Note: I actually don’t have a copy available for reference, so I’m relying on my memory. I don’t think there’s a message on the last page that says something direct like, “the moral of the story is…” but if there is, I grant that this would affect my interpretation.)

A few years ago, I revisited another short Silverstein favorite from my childhood: The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.

I cried a lot more than I expected to (which had been “not at all”).  

To summarize:

The Missing Piece is a little sentient triangular wedge that doesn’t know where it fits in. The world around it is populated by rolling Pac-Man-like circles. The eponymous Piece hopes to complete one of these circles by fitting perfectly into its empty slice-of-pie space. Once that happens, it will know where it belongs. There is always some reason why it’s not a good fit with the available options, though. At one point, the Missing Piece is picked up by a rolling Pac-Man with a gap that complements its shape. Together, they create a perfectly round circle and enjoy rolling happily along.

But that’s not the end.

Unexpectedly, the Missing Piece begins to grow. It no longer fits into what it thought was its intended place. Both Piece and Pac-Man are disgruntled. They had expected everything to stay the same, but once that becomes unsustainable, they go their separate ways. Or rather, the Pac-Man goes its own way, because the Missing Piece is shaped like a doorstop and has limited mobility. Then the Big O rolls by. It’s already a perfect circle with no evident gaps or missing bits. They get to talking, and the Missing Piece is drawn to the Big O, but there doesn’t appear to be a place for it to fit. The Big O is already complete and self-sufficient. The Piece asks if it can come along anyway, and the O simply states that they’re not currently able to move in the same way at the same pace. It’s matter-of-fact rather than condescending or discouraging. The O notes it would be nice to meet again some day, and then goes on its way. The Missing Piece proceeds to pull its angular body up until it flops over, time and again, and as it moves forward its pointy edges begin to wear off. It’s awkward and difficult and it takes some time, but the Missing Piece becomes a circle capable of rolling on its own. It no longer needs to wait for a perfectly complementary Pac-Man to pick it up and carry it around, and in this way, it’s able to rejoin the Big O. 

It’s possible to read this as a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative, but as with The Giving Tree, I think that’s too simplistic.

It would also be possible to read this as a suggestion to adapt yourself until you’ve become more palatable for someone you like, but that also misses the point.

This story is about co-dependence, self-determination, and agency.

Unspoken expectations also come into play. Part of the reason that the Piece is consistently disappointed with its own loneliness is that it isn’t really communicating its expectation of completion to the various Pac-Men it meets. The Piece expects them to complete it just as much as it completes them, which is a pretty big ask.

The Piece has presumably never seen wholeness and self-sufficiency represented as a viable option before, so it’s not entirely the Piece’s fault for concluding that it must have been incomplete.

The character of the Big O demonstrates the necessity of representation.

Once the Piece sees that it’s actually possible to travel around without having the perfect partner, that’s the choice it makes.

Its physical changes aren’t superfluous cosmetic accommodations as much as they are the practical consequences of changed behavior. 

So what does The Missing Piece have to do with The Giving Tree and this message of benevolent subservience?

Expectations, communication, and complexity.

Whether the author intended it or not, the absence of real, honest communication is one of the quiet little tragedies in The Giving Tree

Suggesting that “The tree made her choices, so if she didn’t want to be used up and hollowed out, she should have said so” is the kind of rationalization used by people who have been unreasonably demanding.

The boy never had to experience disappointment in his relationship with the tree because his requests were always indulged.

What if he had checked in on the tree more often? What if he had declined to accept something that she offered? It’s the fact that he isn’t shown to communicate any kind of awareness of the needs of others that leaves many readers cold. 

At the same time, it’s possible to interrogate the patterns of seemingly kind choices made by some people (or anthropomorphic trees) and call attention to the ways that they aren’t really all that helpful or supportive.

As always, context matters.

The tree never deflected by saying anything like, “I’d love to help you, but this isn’t a good time for me right now” or “I like to feel useful and needed, so it’s easy for me to say ‘yes’ to things that might actually overextend the resources I need to take care of myself.” 

She may well have been disappointed and felt abandoned if the boy didn’t ask such significant favors of her.

The macro message suggests that you should behave in ways that will help you avoid the disappointment of unmet expectations.

And it’s true that there can be value in lowering expectations, because maintaining unreasonably high or unspecified expectations can be incredibly frustrating and disappointing.

But disappointment is part of life. You can’t avoid it forever.

It happens, and then you need to move on.

The Giving Tree is often (mis)used as advice for avoiding disappointment.

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O is about moving forward after it happens.

And both stories are about the things we don’t say that might be better off said.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Throw Out Your Trash

Trigger warning: reference to food restriction

 A dark photo taken from hanging out of the back window of a car, showing the front door and side windows of the car as it drives along a foggy, tree-lined road. The driver\'s side window is rolled down, and an arm clad in a burnt orange jacket and bent up at the elbow is extended out the window. The hand is giving a peace sign. The white serif font says, "Throw out your trash before 2020!!!" There is a list underneath, without bullet points or commas. Commas are added here for clarity: "Fake friend, fake family, exes, grudges, bad habits, anything toxic, doubts." The sharer has been removed because it was unlikely that they were the creator, and no original source was listed.
 A dark photo taken from hanging out of the back window of a car, showing the front door and side windows of the car as it drives along a foggy, tree-lined road. The driver\’s side window is rolled down, and an arm clad in a burnt orange jacket and bent up at the elbow is extended out the window. The hand is giving a peace sign. The white serif font says, “Throw out your trash before 2020!!!” There is a list underneath, without bullet points or commas. Commas are added here for clarity: “Fake friend, fake family, exes, grudges, bad habits, anything toxic, doubts.” The sharer has been removed because it was unlikely that they were the creator, and no original source was listed.

This was originally published between 2019 and 2020, but I’m repurposing it for 2021-2022.

I’m sure I could find the same prose with the current year listed if I really cared to try, but I don’t. The introduction is new, and some of the commentary has been updated accordingly.

After being diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 38, I became aware of how often I unconsciously outsource my motivation to circumstance.

That is, I rely on the necessity of situational urgency to force myself into action.

That is, I procrastinate.

Like most things that people do, procrastination isn’t intrinsically bad. It can lead to exasperating delays, unfinished tasks, and a lot of stress. But I think it’s worth recognizing that it’s not entirely maladaptive.

Procrastination can also create a strategic failsafe to balance out overwhelming or competing priorities. While a failsafe should generally be used sparingly, there’s no arguing that it helps create a clear path forward.

Recognizing that I’ve backed myself into a time-sensitive corner can help me accept the reasonable and inevitable limitations of my own work. That is, I can temporarily table perfectionistic paralysis.

I also sometimes struggle with deciding where to allocate my energy, and the relative urgency of deadlines can help me organize my tasks in order of significance and/or manageability.

I tend to take on a lot of things at the same time, and I tend to set ambitious goals based on my knowledge of my what I have been able to accomplish in the past (regardless of how much time, energy, and/or external support I have in the moment). Then I berate myself for not doing all the things to a high standard in a short time.

This pattern is hardly unique to me, and it’s hardly unique to people with ADHD.

I interpreted cultural values and concepts through the lens of my own experience, and I now represent an idiosyncratically fucked up variant of a combination of many common patterns. Just like everyone else who routinely shames themselves for not accomplishing goals that were unrealistic in the first place!

It’s a lot easier to move forward when procrastination and “failure” are framed as things that do happen, rather than as things that shouldn’t happen.

But it took me 38 years to even encounter that message, let alone embrace it.

Procrastination isn’t necessarily the enemy. It can become a problem, but it’s often a response to some larger problem (including but not limited to unattainable expectations).

The clean slate of a new year is alluring.

People make New Year’s Resolutions.

People give up on them.

People forget about them.

People shame themselves for failing to achieve them.

People shame others for setting for unattainable goals while refraining from establishing intentions of their own.

It’s like the universe is conspiring to force everyone to get their shit together.

The universe and/or corporations eager to exploit shame for profit.

In general, resolutions could stand to be more concrete and more feasible. Shame loves to feed on unrealized potential and curtailed ambition.

On the other hand, resolutions that remain open to abstraction, ambiguity, and gradual progress can encourage real growth. It’s possible to craft lovely, expansive, insightful, and practical resolutions (or non-resolutions), as in these posts from Alok Vaid Menon, Sam Dylan Finch and Dr. Devon Price.

So aspirational goals can be great, and unrealistic expectations can be disappointing, and identifying a personally viable balance between these can be tricky.

And even if that delicate balance is successfully identified, it certainly won’t look good in an Instagram post.

Habitual procrastinators get a lot of shit about their epic last-minute pushes, and yet when late December rolls around, everyone is on board with the implausible gratification of that failsafe reboot.

“New year, new me!”

It’s an inspirational blend of desperation, denial, and self-righteousness that’s captured really well by the image macro at the top of this page.

It was designed to be shared in the last days of one year in order to create momentum and excitement for the next.

“Not only should you aspire to fix everything, you can fix everything if you just want it hard enough and try hard enough!”

I think some of the themes in the above list of TRASH come through more clearly if I address them in reverse order.

  • Doubts

Opening with “doubts” highlights the unearned confidence behind the rest of these resolutions.

Resolution paraphrase:

“Trash those doubts! Absolute confidence is always preferable to uncertainty. Having doubts leads to changing your mind, which leads to being wrong, and being wrong is for losers. Stuff your willingness to change your mind into a big black Hefty bag, along with your willingness to admit that you might not know something and your openness to new perspectives.”

It’s not actually the worst thing in the world to experience doubt. Doubt can motivate us to ask questions. Certainty, on the other hand, can encourage us to fight for the cause of answers that don’t actually exist.

  • Anything toxic

I debated about using the words “Toxic Positivity” on this blog because a lot of “Toxic [X]” discourse has become, well, toxic.

Resolution paraphrase:

“The recent construct of interpersonal toxicity works best when a strongly opinionated individual is the sole arbiter of what IS and ISN’T fundamentally toxic. ‘Toxic’ is also an inherent, easily-identifiable, and static property. The toxic things in your life aren’t that way because of some kind of complex confluence of unknowable factors. The things that you have decided are ‘toxic’ are transparently bad, irredeemable, and to be avoided. “

I ultimately stuck with “toxic” because I think it’s worth remembering that it’s a modifier.

Most things that can be toxic can also be lots of other things.

Masculinity, for example, can be toxic, healthy, grounded, emotional, respectful, queer, and more. Sometimes two or more of these at the same time. And sometimes none of them.

Even waste isn’t inherently toxic, even though “toxic waste” is a common and accurate expression.

  • Bad habits

Years ago, a friend of mine (who is an amazing human who moves through the world in a very different way from me) posted on social media that they were “giving up” hitting the snooze button on their alarm for a month.

I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

It’s not that I disbelieved my friend or their commitment to their goals.

It’s just that for me, the idea of “giving up” the snooze button felt as feasible as “giving up” being hungry after missing a meal.

Yes, there are habits and practices in other areas of life that can help support a smooth wake-up ritual, but the bottom line is that I’m not a morning person. Even when I’m living “well” and making lots of “good” choices, I tend to fall asleep again after the first alarm. That’s why the snooze button exists.

For my friend, the snooze button was a bad habit that they could consciously choose to break.

For me, the snooze button is only a “choice” in that if I don’t choose to use it, I am likely to lose jobs, opportunities, and/or relationships. Fighting against the reality of the snooze button is a losing battle for me if I want to maintain a lifestyle that requires me to be up and ready before 8 AM, short of learning to be an entirely different person who operates in entirely different ways than I have ever successfully functioned before. (I have unsuccessfully attempted this approach for approximately 30 years.)

Like “toxic,” “bad” is a modifier whose definition varies according to context.

This isn’t actually as debatable as people seem to want it to be.

Labeling behaviors as intrinsically “good” or “bad” promotes value judgments more likely to create shame and self-flagellation than sustainable and satisfying progress.

Options that are difficult but manageable choices for some people present unnecessarily exhausting and impractical barriers for others.

Whether something constitutes a “good choice” or a “bad habit” has to be understood according to its context, and even then, lots of common behaviors could reasonably be considered both.

Resolution paraphrase:

“Here’s a super sustainable expectation to have for yourself: stop doing bad things. Just, you know, any habits you have that are not truly, deeply good. If you still have any remnants of those habits two days from now, you’re trash. Prepare to be kicked to the curb.”

  • Grudges

For many years, I wanted to be the “bigger person” across all conflicts, which I understood to mean “never invoke people’s past actions because that means I am automatically worse for holding a grudge.”

But it turns out that “observing patterns” and “holding grudges” are not the same thing!

It turns out that it’s reasonable to notice and remember how people tend to behave and how their actions tend to affect you, and to talk about history when it starts to repeat itself.

That’s a far cry from bringing up a laundry list of unaired or unresolved grievances in every discussion.

I suspect that folx with extensive collections of self-proclaimed toxic shit and fake acquaintances around them that they are desperate to to let go of are also likely to have a tough time letting go of grudges.

So, I’m interested to know where the author of the macro draws the line between “grudges” and “memories about lived experiences.”

Resolution paraphrase:

“Trash your grudges by trashing all the humans who have ever wronged you according to your own underspecified criteria!”

  • Exes

You know what, I think this one helps clarify the working definition of “grudge” here. 

Resolution paraphrase:

“Exes are inherently and fundamentally trash, period. Amicable breakups are lies. Also, grudges are trash. Those bitches know what they did and why I’m mad.

  • Fake family

I guess it probably is time to ditch those cardboard cutouts of the cast of Grace and Frankie that I set up around the kitchen table.

…can I at least keep Sol around after New Year’s? He’s so understanding.

Animated gif of the character Sol from the show Grace and Frankie, wearing a patterned shirt and looking confused and/or emotional. It turns out most of the Sol gifs out there also feature other characters, and I’m not creating my own.

Like, I get that the resolutions are broadly suggesting that you should surround yourself with people who are authentic. But I’m still a little fuzzy on the interpretation “fake family” here.

If it means “people in your family of origin or chosen family who you believe to be superficial liars based on your own interpretation (see: toxic),” it might be a good resolution to work on understanding and communication before the trashing part.

On account of how people might not know that they are being disposed of due to something that has never been explained.

(This is distinct from situations where good-faith efforts at reasonable negotiation have consistently failed, and/or situations that are openly abusive. The defensive tone of the macro leads me to believe that the creator has not necessarily unpacked their own toxic behavior, but I acknowledge that this is more assumption than fact.)

Resolution paraphrase:

“Call up your toxic family members out of the blue and confidently tell them that they’re toxic trash and you’re throwing them out!”

  • Fake friend

At least there’s just the one fake friend to deal with. That’s reassuring.

It’s also reassuring to know that all of those grudges, which have nothing to do with that fake friend and all of that fake family, will be in the big ol’ trash bag on the curb of 2021.

Resolution paraphrase:

“Be done with drama! Don’t spare any time for that self-centered flouncing that some friends seem to love, because you’re better than that.”

It’s okay to make resolutions and it’s okay to not make resolutions.

But please try, if you can, to think about expectations, and whether or not they are even your own expectations.

Have whatever kind of new year you want to have, whether or not it prioritizes happiness, productivity, or self-improvement.