My Malawi trip and–subsequently–life in general have been sitting inside of me like a big lump of stuff that needs to be sorted out. I have compared it to a ball of Christmas lights that you take out after a year of storage all tangled up: you don’t know where the beginning is nor the end, and you certainly aren’t ready to string it out into a pretty display for all to see. I am hoping to use this space to unfurl the big lump a bit. Into something pretty? Who knows. But at least something useful.
I have been thinking a lot since my trip about expectations and the element of surprise. As an example, let me share one story from my Malawian experience.
In rural Malawi, which is most of the country including where we were at, there is a very basic way of life. Very few people have cars, all roads off the main highway are dirt if even that, there is very little electricity in most homes, and virtually no running water. At Maji Zuwa, the wonderful organization and lodge we stayed at, we had it quite nice: a private chalet with my own bathroom that included a modern flushable toilet, sink, and shower. And electricity. One day, mid shower, the water ran out. We learned that the way that we have clean, usable running water is because there is a large water tower at the corner of the property that is filled from the lake, then treated, so it is safe for washing and consumption. We then watched, for the next 8 or so hours, a group of women carry very large buckets of water on their heads from the lake, up a rather steep incline several hundred feet to the water tower to refill it. In cloudless African heat. FOR EIGHT HOURS. So that I could flush the toilet, brush my teeth, and get my body clean. After witnessing this, I can assure you that I have never taken shorter showers in my life. And, perhaps this is TMI, but flushing after every other use of the toilet seemed sufficient.
Incidentally, prior to this, I had never given one second’s thought to where my water comes from at home. I just turn on the faucet and there it is. Clean and ready to use. And also available in hot should I choose it.
Expectations. I have begun to think of expectations as basically the ways we believe the world to run without much consideration that it could in fact run very differently from what we think. My expectations when I had them were constantly challenged in Malawi. Go to the ATM? No problem, but it’s gonna take over an hour to get there, an hour to withdraw cash, and an hour to get back. Ordering lunch? Sure, but the restaurant may not actually have the ingredients in stock that you ordered so they need to go get it. Perhaps you’ll eat in an hour or two.
As I was sitting my last evening at Maji Zuwa, watching the sunset over the lake, a chicken pecking the ground by my feet, a lizard crawling up the post next to me, the sounds of women doing their laundry down at the lake, children playing as they bathe in the water, a simple, yet fairly profound thought occurred to me: you have to be willing to let the world surprise you.
Being willing to be surprised seems to be the antidote to expectations and it’s faithful sidekicks frustration and disappointment. We are taught to see the world in a certain way and when it goes somewhere different, we are bummed, sometimes infuriated. We search for what/who to blame for such injustice. And when we are used to the world we know working in such a way, we may never even know to think that it could work differently. If my water went out at home, I would freak out. That’s not supposed to happen! And I wouldn’t have given an ounce of thought to the effort it would take to get it back on again.
I think this plays out on a personal level too. I think we learn to have very clear and concise expectations of ourselves. And when those expectations aren’t meant, we are hurt, sad, angry, or frustrated. Consequently, we hone in on these expectations so clearly to avoid such feelings that we may even start to eliminate room for growth or the potential to surprise ourselves.
What if we opened ourselves up to letting the world surprise us? Maybe, more importantly, what if we opened ourselves up to letting us surprise ourselves? Expectations limit what we can see: what potential might exist in our relationships, our skills at work. It cultivates the capacity for fear of change and eliminates a capacity for a courageous step into the unknown.
I have been blessed with some amazing cultural experiences that I know most people don’t ever get to have. And I see how those experiences have impacted my desire and hopefully willingness to see the world in new and different ways, and thus myself, as well. But I struggle with how to do that in the comfort of my own community and home. How can I continue to foster a desire for the element of surprise when I already feel myself sucked back into normal life and my powerful Malawian lessons slipping away? It doesn’t sit well with me. In fact, it gives me a headache.
I intend to let the world surprise me. And, subsequently, I intend to let ME surprise me. This is one takeaway from my Malawi experience. I know there is a more to come, but that is a fruitful place to start.