Expectations – Yom Kippur 5763 (2002)

As many of you know, in my first career I was a family therapist, a choice which has stood me well in the variety of pursuits I have followed since.

Of all the lessons I gleaned from my training and practice, one continues to provide a critical foundation for my life, personally, professionally and spiritually. I can sum it up for you in a single phrase: As a rule, we get what we expect.

Perhaps it sounds overly simple, but I can assure you, it is full of deep and complex implications. For example, I believe that the worlds that each of us inhabit are shaped – intellectually, spiritually, and indeed physically – by our expectations of the world in general, and our relationships with others in particular. Allow me to explain by way of an example.

I spent a year working for a community mental health center in western Massachusetts, just outside Northampton, the site of the largest long-term psychiatric hospital in the Commonwealth. This was just as Massachusetts was “de-institutionalizing” patients – discharging people from the hospital who had been there for decades in a rather abrupt fashion to group homes, families or friends. Most of these patients had lost whatever social skills they may have ever possessed, and they were terrified at being disgorged into what was, for them, a very cold, cruel world.

The primary responsibility for their care fell to social workers who worked for the Commonwealth: civil servants, some of whom at times seemed as fossilized in their skills and styles as the poor unfortunates they were trying to help. Because of our clinic’s reputation and proximity to the hospital, we were charged with helping with the de-institutionalization: after all, our staff were paid better, were younger, and full of energy and ideas.

It wasn’t long before our staff became frustrated with, then downright antagonistic towards, the civil servants. Every day I would hear stories from my supervisees about how some social worker had failed to follow through on a critical task, leaving our client high and dry. A rebellion was underway: none of our staff wanted to work with those incompetents, and they would rather either take over complete care of the de-institutionalized or abandon the project altogether. Of course, neither path was really an option.

In response, we instituted an “experiment” with our staff that would last, we told them, six months. Based on a solid theoretical framework – that we elicit behaviors in others in keeping with our expectations of their responses – we told our therapists to pretend that the social servants were, in fact, professionals. Pretend, just pretend, we told them, that when they miss a meeting, there was something genuinely more important that had come up, and extend them the professional courtesy that you would expect extended to you. Can’t get them to give you a report? Assume the best – even if you know differently – that your counterpart is a professional trying to achieve the same goals as you, and elicit their assistance as a partner, rather than fighting them as an adversary.

Our staff told us that we were being naïve, that the plan was simple-minded, that such corniness could not overcome the gross incompetence they had to endure. But we prevailed upon them, and they began the experiment, amid much grumbling.

It didn’t last six months. Within six weeks we were getting spontaneous exclamations of pleasant surprise from our staff. They couldn’t believe how professional the civil servants had become; in fact, they started to call them “therapists” instead of “social workers,” a subtle but important distinction. The two camps were rapidly becoming united.

Now, this is not to say that everything went smoothly from that point forward, but the fact of the matter is that our staff changed their underlying assumptions about their colleagues – in other words, they radically changed their expectations – and as a result, whole worlds changed: the worlds of our staff, the worlds of the social workers, and most importantly, the worlds of our clients.

I have found that this simple rule – we get what we expect, usually – has proven true in circumstance after circumstance. It is, of course, most obvious in interpersonal relationships, like in the new position I am filling as director of a thriving medical practice. In my first meeting with the fifty or so staff, I announced my philosophy – that we each get what we expect, usually – and told them that was the good news and the bad news. It was good news, I said, because I am an optimist, and I expect I will get the best from everyone, so that’s something I am sure will happen most of the time. It was bad news, I said, because I will be expecting the best from everyone, and so the bar is set high. But in the ten weeks I have been there, I have seen a major improvement in the staff relationships and the quality of work, so I know it’s working.

Now, you may ask, what does this have to do with spirituality, and especially today, Yom Kippur?

In our Torah portion today, God tells us that we have placed before us life and blessing, death and the curse, and then admonishes us to choose life. This choice we are given can refer to the little choices we make every day having to do with doing the right thing: will we donate to the Food Pantry? Will we spread words of gossip? And all the myriad of ethical matters, large and small, that continually cross our path. Or it can refer to something else.

There is an old tale that goes like this: one day, Moishe went up to Abe and asked, “So, how are things?”

“Terrible,” said Abe.

God overheard the conversation and said, “Terrible? You think this is terrible? I’ll show you terrible!”

And you can imagine what happened next.

A little ways away, Shlomo went up to Ben and asked, “So, how are things?”

“Wonderful,” said Ben.

God overheard the conversation and said, “Wonderful? You think this is wonderful? I’ll show you wonderful!”

And you can imagine what happened next.

We can choose an attitude of expecting blessings in our lives, or an attitude of expecting curses. We can expect that, on the average, we will reap the benefits of our good efforts, or, we can expect that, on the average, we will be treated poorly by life, deservedly or not.

My view of the world tells me that we will get largely what we expect. If we expect that people are going to treat us with courtesy, we will find more courtesy in our lives than if we don’t expect that courtesy. Now part of this comes simply by noticing differently, of our subconscious mind directing our attention to things that are important to us. For example, any one of you who has been through a pregnancy, either your own or a loved one’s, knows that during that pregnancy, everyone in the world seems pregnant.

Thus, as we maneuver our way through our daily lives, expecting to see courtesy, we happen to notice it where others might not, and even interpret some events as being examples of courtesy, even if they were not intended that way. But that is only half of the story.

By noticing courtesy in others, we ourselves become more courteous. We expect it, so we live it. And soon enough, little by little, we find ourselves in a slightly more pleasant world, created in part by a pair of glasses that are admittedly a little bit rosy, and in part by a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, when we truly choose a life of blessings, we choose not simply to do the right thing from time to time, but to live in a world where we expect blessings – and deliver them to others. A world that grows a little brighter each day, on the average.

Of course, there are always things that surprise us, that don’t live up to our expectations. Sometimes they are pleasant surprises, sometimes they are unpleasant, and sometimes they are earth-shattering. Which brings me to the last, and most serious, consequence of my approach.

Some years ago, we were just embarking on the path to our daughter’s bat mitzvah, when my studies of Torah took a difficult turn: I had encounter face-to-face the misogyny, the negative attitudes towards women that run rampant through parts of Torah. This sudden awareness left me wounded, struggling, wrestling with what to do, especially in light of the bat mitzvah for our daughter. It led from there to a deeper crisis, a true crisis of faith: I asked myself, “Do I believe in God? Do I want to worship a God whose scriptures hold this negative view of women?”

Now, as many of you know, I hold that belief in God is an irrational thing. So I knew that I could not decide whether or not God existed, in the sense of deducing it logically. My only choice was to apply my rational philosophy – we get what we expect, mostly – to this irrational challenge.

Which kind of world would I rather live in, I asked myself. A world with a God, or without? What would the differences be in the way I saw things? What would the differences be in the way I did things? What would the differences be in my hopes and aspirations?

For me, a world with God means a world in which there is something beyond our immediate existence, some greater force that is creative, loving, and fundamentally unfathomable. For me, a world with God means having opportunities to experience moments of holiness in which I am connected with that force, whether it be in a life-changing moment – like when a shofar blast touches me to the core – or in quiet moments, when I am myself creative and loving.

A world without God would not lead me to be free to treat others poorly, for I don’t believe in a God that meets out punishment for the details. But it would be a world that would miss a certain magic, a world with less hope for the future, a world in which coincidences are merely that – statistical occurrences without meaning or divinity.

I don’t have to tell you which world I choose to live in. But I would like to tell you that it seems to be working. I expect that there will be moments of holiness, and from time to time, they happen. I expect to feel connected to life, and I do. I expect to be surprised with magic, and I am.

The dark side is there, too. Having the dark side that means I have to wrestle with God when the world seems full of poverty, hatred and death. It means that I can’t simply step back from human cruelty and say, “Oh, it’s just nature and nurture, human behavior.” Saying that might let God off the hook, but what it really does is banish God from the equation. So I keep God in the picture, for better or worse.

I choose blessings and life. That means I get to struggle to make them happen, and to wrestle with God when the road is difficult. Because, in the long run, I expect to find those blessings.

And, more often than not, I do.

L’Shanah Tovah!

© 2002-2007 James F. Brulé