Living up to people’s expectations can be a challenge. We were out to dinner and after updating one another on families, touching on the financial crisis and on the forthcoming presidential election, conversation suddenly took a downward turn. Out of the blue, Pierre asked, “Tell me, as an Englishman, what do the English think of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays?”
But before I could reply, Joelle added, “It is difficult to believe he was the author as he had no formal higher education.” I felt penned in.
While I adore Shakespeare’s writing, I know little of any current controversy about its provenance. Moreover, I am no intellectual and I certainly can’t speak on behalf of ‘the English’. However, there were clearly expectations that I answer. After a horrible squirmy silence I found myself saying that, as I recall, there have been debates on this subject in the UK for years (my main source – ‘O’ level English, 1957/8) and I had not read anything special about the issue recently (given that my source is limited to a daily scour of the BBC website!).
Whether or not this satisfied my hosts I don’t know, but my reply and the situation certainly made me feel uncomfortable. Nothing I said was untrue but it was clearly hollow and inconsequential. It would have been so much better if I had simply declared ignorance. Somehow, possibly because I was already insecure (the conversation was in French), I had been pushed into living up to their assumptions and I didn’t, or couldn’t, resist.
Closer to home and in different circumstances, I am faced with other expectations. Although the situations remain awkward, here I feel better able to cope. I was a doctor but since my retirement I have had neither the wish nor the time to keep up with medicine. I know next to nothing about recent advances in treatments and keep only a very peripheral eye on developments in the health service, both areas in which I once had expertise. I have moved on. However, this is not something of which friends (and some parts of my family) are fully aware. So when I am asked my views on medical matters, and this is not uncommon, I usually have to disappoint. I can still manage the more basic ‘doctoring’ business, but the latest research is not my bag and whenever I respond in these terms my answer is received with a certain incredulity or disappointment. “You have always been kind enough to help in the past, why not now?” Apart from pressing me to advise on things in which I am no longer competent, one reason that I find expectations pressurising is that the questioner, probably unknowingly, is pushing me back into the past. Declining to help gives me a freedom, as it reinforces in me the fact that since retirement I have a new life.
There is one further expectation that affects me. It comes on most Thursdays or Fridays, dear reader, and involves you. I refer to the expectation that by Sunday/Monday I will have written a new piece for Greyhares. I love writing, and blogging has become a key part of my week. Fortunately I get neither writer’s cramp nor writer’s block so on paper there should be no problem. Each week ideas for topics bubble up through the grey matter and then with digital intervention settle on to the page. The problem is that I don’t always agree with myself, or I get diverted, or I find explanations that require time to digest, or the piece just not seem to work, or there is an idea I simply can’t express, or it does not get past my wife (who reads drafts of them all!) or it is rejected by ‘Ed’ [Not this time- Ed]. The important thing to know about this expectation is that it allows me to develop and expand. Indeed, I would not have it any other way.
Expectations are made of us all the time. When they serve to encourage or develop they help. If they stultify, or make demands that cannot be met, they become a burden and are best avoided.