Expectations Begone

The natural laws dictate that parents instinctively take care of their children, nourish them, nurture them. It is not a matter of choice, it isn’t a matter of conscience, it is what normal human beings do. And as children we view this care, this love as our entitlement and take it for granted all our lives. They are the solid fortress that will always shelter us, the one warm and safe place where we’ll never be rejected, thwarted, ridiculed, or unwelcome. No matter how dysfunctional a family is and how critical one is of one’s parents, there is always the sense that no one is as much your very own, in this otherwise cold world, as your parents. Then the betrayal hits, when they can no longer do what we always thought they would do for us, when they walk out of the roles in which we had them cast, when age and illness sets in.

But sadly the relationship plays itself out just as if it was a fortress and its former inhabitants. What comes to my mind often is a light and sound show at Red Fort, Delhi that I saw as a child. They used to spotlight various corners of the fort in lights and they used to play dialogues and music in the background so that one could imagine a lively place where the courtiers had gathered in the king’s court or the women were assembled together in the harem, laughing and joking. They used to make it come alive, help one imagine how it would have been all those hundreds of years ago. Just like a wave of nostalgia that hits you when you go back to a place you used to call home as a child, the place that was the warm, safe haven and is now like a crumbling fortress, deserted and bereft of life. As grown-ups we seldom return to the places of our youth. We remember the snatches of good times as the spotlight of memory rests on one scene or another from the past and briefly relive these instants but we never return. We selfishly take what the home, the parents within, provided for us and then we leave, never to come back. It is almost as if instinct leads us to sever these connections and to move on. That’s our brutal hard-wiring, I believe.

But as evolved human beings we have managed to move past and camouflage any hard-wiring with which nature endowed us. Thousands of years of evolution have gone into rendering certain organs meaningless, certain instincts redundant. We don’t hunt, we don’t gather, we don’t dress ourselves in animal skins or bark, why then do we continue to leave our parents behind? We educate ourselves, we are civilized and we have a conscience, so why is it so hard to care for aging parents the same way that they did for us? Why the old folks’ homes? They didn’t put us in young infants’ homes when we were infants.

I suppose marriage does complicate matters. Husbands and wives have their own sets of parents and there appears to be a competition for limited resources, so to speak. Some cultures try to game the competition by invoking warped ideologies where the daughter is expected to have nothing to do with her parents after her marriage. They even reserve a portion of the wedding ceremonies for a meaningless ritual called kanyadan where the daughter is “given away” to her husband’s family, she is their possession now, given into the service of her husband and in-laws. So the parents she left behind have only their sons to rely on. The daughter’s unfortunate parents are told they can’t even help themselves to a glass of water at their daughter’s home, if they ever happen to visit.

So for people who are a part of cultures such as the one described above, if they are lucky enough to have a son, chances are they have pinned all their hopes and dreams on this son. The son stays devoted to his parents until, of course, he’s married. And then the tussle begins. His wife is expected to not just respect but ‘love’ her husband’s parents, a couple of strangers who she didn’t know growing up. People whose routines she doesn’t understand, who are so different from her own parents. She is expected to cultivate an instant admiration for them. If she fails to do this she is tagged evil or obnoxious. The poor son is now torn between his wife and his parents. The device used to game the system is what ends up blowing up in their faces.

Other cultures just outsource the care of their parents to agencies and organizations that exist for these purposes, where they live out the rest of their lives in impersonal and sterilized conditions. Either way, parents are always at the losing end.

But if civilization, compassion, conscience and basic humanity was to somehow exert itself wouldn’t parents, and children be happier? Daughters would always be able to care for their aging parents without their in-laws interfering and taunting them about how they are so devoted to their own parents and not to them. Sons would take care of their own parents without their wives raising any objections. There wouldn’t be any resentment on any side as each person tries to do what seems right to them. What is so difficult to understand about this?

And paralyzing expectations are at the root of everything. Why build an entire mountain of expectations from people over whom you really have no control. So many philosophers, thinkers have left behind words of wisdom about detachment about living a life free from expectations. Why not internalize this way of thinking? I intend to do this. I intend to raise a compassionate child and leave the rest to God. I don’t expect her to care for me in my old age and if I had a son I wouldn’t expect that from him either. In fact I don’t want to expect anything from anyone.

One must, at all stages be in control of ones own destiny. Admittedly, debilitating diseases, illnesses and other health related helplessness can interfere with the best of intentions; Murphy’s law does present itself in various incarnations, but one must plan. One must invest as much in one’s health while one can as one does towards cultivating a financial nest egg for one’s future, and then hope for the best. Because as the Stoics believed, there are things we just can’t control: Our bodies, our partners and our children, our friends and our colleagues, our houses, clothes and all material goods, our money, our jobs and worldly power, our reputation. According to Epictetus of the Stoic school of thought, the only things we can control are: Our judgment and opinions, our desires, our adversion and our aversion – all under control of our will. Herein lies the secret. This is the only thing for which we must strive – controlling the things that we can really control.

4 Comments

  1. Pragya, I have one word to describe your post: "Exactly". What is, why is it, what it will be and what is the best way …. exactly.

  2. We are like batteries. Once we are charged, we separate ourselves from the electrical outlet, to serve our purpose, until our last bit of energy is drained from us. Sometimes we come back, but just to recharge. Bad metaphor. >.<

  3. profound…

  4. hi pragya,A very sensitive and deeply thoughtful post -I agree fully with you.Detaching yourself from these naturally conditioned responses is easier said than done…but there is no escape. One has to suspend judgment to avoid heartache later…. expectations are the key factor here.Thanks for such an interesting post and for drawing my attention to it.Cheerz!


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