The Tacky Dress of Expectations

Catching sight of myself wearing another person's expectation is an unsettling moment. I'm usually doing some nondescript thing when I look down and realize something hasn't and doesn't feel right.

Why am I unsettled, frustrated, and, if I've been wearing it too long, angry?

But it's there, the clothing of someone else's expectations, swallowing me, binding me, overwhelming me. It's the double knit polyester caftan with a lime green and shocking orange floral print with lacy yellow trim I would have NEVER choose with a hemline that does my legs no favors. And mutton sleeves.

I'm not sure what mutton sleeves are, but any sleeve named after meat cannot be flattering.

And yet, here I am, looking back at myself in the mirror of my soul, realizing this is not a role I chose. The green is too garish. The orange is too, well, orange. The waist is too constricting. The whole outfit is too constricting, and yet it is far too big at the same time. So billowy I almost don't notice it, until I try to move in a direction of my own choosing and I get tripped up by all the fabric. When I start to fall I can't catch myself because of those damned mutton sleeves.

Maybe it's a Southern woman thing, this coma I can find myself slipping into of "Oh, you want to project your expectations on to me? Sure..." then I awake to find myself clothed in something entirely not mine and trying so very hard to make it fit. Maybe it's a clergy thing, that we want so much for people to be okay that we're willing to offer our very selves and souls and dignity to parade around in someone else's expectations day in and day out until we are weary and exhausted and in danger of losing ourselves to someone else's demands. Maybe it's an I don't want to hurt your feelings by telling you, "No," so sure, that moth eaten faded electric blue faux fur wrap will go perfect with my life. Give it to me.

Regardless of my reasons, I find that even now, after years of ministry and life, I discover I have - again - tried to contort and conform myself into meeting expectations that are neither helpful or useful or even healthy for my soul.

But I try, and as I struggle with the mutton sleeves and ridiculous hemline, I hear Her. When I'm in danger of losing too much, of sacrificing too much of my self and soul, of nice-ing myself to death, she will always make herself fully and completely known. She yells at me in her best Julia Sugarbaker voice and demands my attention.

"What in the hell are you wearing?!!?" she asks. Sort of.

She really doesn't ask, the voice of God. She states. Clearly and concisely. She stretches out her legs, knocks the thick heel of her cowboy boots or stilettos (depends on the day) on the wooden floor just to make a noise, and swirls the last bit of bourbon around in her glass.

And I ignore her, maybe. But God who will not be ignored speaks again.

"Take. This. Off. Now."

I have all sorts of reasons why I need to wear other's expectations: how they expect a priest to be; how they expect me to act or not act; how they expect me to be available; how they expect...period. I'm not alone. My friends who are mothers have those expectations. Bishops have them. Spouses, partners, and friends have them.

Many expectations we encounter are reasonable. But not all of them. And those are the dangerous ones. When we encounter those expectations, the ones not ours but the expectations and projections of another clothed in their needs and their wants, we can be tempted to wear what is not ours, thinking we can meet their needs and wants.

We can't. And in our trying, we will almost certainly harm ourselves.

Wearing what is not ours is deadly to our souls. I've known people who have put on so many layers of expectations they they have collapsed under the weight and disappeared. I've been close to that point myself - one reason I'm so wary of it now.

None of us can be all things to all people. We as clergy will fail others in their minds and maybe even in ours. We as partners and friends will have to disappoint someone to be true to ourselves. We as parents will make mistakes that our kids will tell the therapist about for years (but we did something right if they have the good sense to go to therapy). Deeply grounded courage allows us to check in with ourselves to see if another's expectation of us is realistic, appropriate, and healthy. If it is, by all means, go forward.

If not, by all means, leave that dress there. Don't put it on. It's not yours. And it will almost certainly never fit.

Which is where I find myself on occasion. Wearing an expectation that isn't mine or God's. I stand there, feeling the creep of shame.

"Stop that," She says.

How does God always know?

"Because I'm God." And she pulls and rips. I've never understood how putting on expectations is such an easy process, but taking them off? Wholly unpleasant and painful. But God is good at stripping away the things we don't need.

I feel a little raw where some skin came off and look at the dress God is holding.

"Aren't you going to smite it or something?" I ask.

She shakes her head. "Nope. This belongs to someone and it goes back to them. Don't worry though, someone is wearing something you gave them that doesn't fit them. I'll leave it at your therapist's office for you. Until then, go ride your horse."

Because those clothes do fit me. Perfectly.


Unknown said…
Love this.
Leg o' mutton sleeves were late Victorian, and they look like a plump leg of, well, mutton. Like a Gibson Girl would wear. :-)
I was a UCC clergyperson for 10 years. I served 3 parishes. The second one was a 9 month stint. Why so short? Not long before going on vacation I had been confronted by the parish council and asked to put on a most unwieldy garment. I wore it begrudgingly and tried to make it fit. I spent some quality time watching the waves in Northern California on my vacation and the waves seemed to keep saying, "Remember who you are. Remember who you are." My first homily after vacation was one of the best of my career. The theme, "Remember who you are." The next day they asked me to resign. My only regret is that I did not fight them on their request. Taking off the garish garment-- no regrets there at all.
Unknown said…
In CS Lewis' Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace Scrubb wears a dragon skin--lying an a dragon's treasure and thinking dragonish thoughts, he becomes a dragon. This new garb is not so much one of others' expectations; it is one of sin and greed. But the way out is the same--God (Aslan) does the undressing. "Then Aslan speaks: “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace later recalled the experience in these words:
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right to my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff come off.
… Well, he peeled it right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was, lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobby looking than the others had been. And there I was as smooth and soft as a peeled switch. Then he caught hold of me – I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and he threw me into the water. It smarted like anything, but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and … I found that all the pain had gone. And then I saw why. I’d been turned into a boy again… After a bit, the lion took me out and dressed me."

Or as it was put in a hymn before inclusive language:
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,: 'Forgive our foolish ways! Reclothe us in our rightful mind,: In purer lives Thy service find,: In deeper reverence, praise.
Nadine said…
What a great piece! Thank you for sharing this because I know far too many clergy, myself included, who have found themselves in some crazy ill-fitting expectation outfit not of their true choosing. Looking forward to your next post!

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