Living in Anticipation


by Vincent Kenny


Children are trained to notice what is missing from the Christmas presents that they receive. The massively overpowering commercial advertising machine that is the ‘children’s T.V.’ ensures that the cleverly enticing presents advertised find their way indelibly into the child’s desirings. No matter how many gifts the parents actually buy, there are too many indelibly recorded presents missing from under the tree. This training not only renders parents desperate as to their child’s ‘unappreciativeness’ and to feeling that ‘we can do nothing to please him / her’, but it also renders children unable to focus with pleasure on what presents ARE present under the tree. We are all familiar with this. Attention is focused upon what is MISSING.

Adults, on the other hand, are ‘different’. They KNOW that they will NOT get what they REALLY want, and so narrow down their fantasies appropriately - knowing that what they REALLY want is impossible, too expensive, too exaggerated for their life-style, too out of step with their history of present-receiving, too much to hope for. So they select a likely present - likely to be agreed to by the Other, and likely to be ‘useful’ to them in some manner or means. The present comes to have a double representation - firstly, that of its ‘own value’ as an object [e.g. it really IS a useful gadget], and secondly, it represents the negation of all of the other choices that the person could NOT have reasonably expected to get.

Is this a million miles from the child crying in his mountain of present-wrapping debris for that ‘missing’ toy? For the child the toy is simply missing. For the adult, the ‘toy’ is re-presented as missing in and by the received object.

Let us all cry.

OK - that’s enough!

With children, the absence of a positive parent-child relationship can be obscured momentarily by some of the flashy, noisy presents - but with adults this bribery tactic works less well to obscure the missing emotivity. Following the line of thinking above, what is missing is the genuinely positive relationship between the parties, and the effort to obscure this missing link between the parties is the giving of ‘presents’. Children can agree to pretend momentarily that this bribery works because they are given to amusements with noisy toys, but adults either need to receive very elaborate toys indeed or they are unwilling to pretend momentarily that everything is OK.

In both cases we all know when the requisite positive emotional connectivity is missing. The gap cannot be obscured for very long with any conviction - notwithstanding expensive fur coats, watches, jewellery etc.

The place where this creates the most trouble is between ‘grown up children’ and their parents. In other words, between adults of different generations. And this shows itself most clearly at Christmas time when it is the cultural expectation that we ‘go home’ to ‘visit the folks’ and to spend some of the festivity in the company of those people with whom we spent our formative years. Why does this cause so many problems? Because we as adult children in the homes of our parents re-live the same patterns of frustrating role relationships that we were first trained into by our parents and grand-parents - roles which ‘left out’ a great part of what we came to define as our ‘private experience’, or as our ‘real self’.

How does this work? Simple.

When you are returning to your ‘homestead’ , to your family of origin, you do so under one or another dominant expectancy. These dominant expectancies are emotional channels which carry you towards the imminent return to your old family life environment. The first emotional channel is one we can call ‘Same Old Story...’, and it works like this: - You know that things are ‘always the same’; that no one at home ever changes for the better; that this Christmas will be a repeat of all the other previous Christmases that you have ever experienced; that you will find yourself getting annoyed, irritated, impatient, ill-tempered, angry, and so on with those ‘folks at home’. You know that no matter how much you have changed as a person over all these years, that these changes will never be seen, recognised, or admitted into the family discussions. People will expect you to play the same old role that they first fit you into, and they in turn will certainly keep up their own old style of relating to you. The fact that we anticipate the Same Old Story indicates the type of disappointment that we feel in the face of the fact that things just never seem to change. This means that the Same Old Story = the Same Old Disappointments that we feel with these others.

The second emotional channel we can call ‘Maybe This Time...’, and it works like this:- For some reason we come to expect that things will indeed be different this time. The usual reasons are that we ourselves have changed so much due to our life experiences that we are sure that we can never play the same old roles in the family again - and that because of this personal change, that the family system of conversations and relationships will be different. Another reason we come to anticipate something different is that the ‘folks at home’ have undergone some intense life experiences which seem to have changed them [at least as far as we can tell on the phone]. So, ‘Maybe This Time’ we will finally experience .that which we have always missed in our relationship with our parents, family, etc. Hope springs eternal - in this case hoping that our parents will [tick one or more of these items!] -  

Show that they love you [instead of not caring]

Express affection for you [instead of being inexpressive]

Recognise you for the fine success that you have made of your life [in spite of the fact that you refused to follow the career they had chosen for you]

Appreciate all that you have done for them [instead of taking it all for granted]

Be sincere and honest in their dealings with you [instead of never directly communicating with you]

Come to judge you positively [rather than continually write you off as a failure]

....and so on with our list of what is always missing.

Now if you are flowing in the first channel [Same Old Story = the Same Old Disappointments] you are not expecting things to be any different this year. But to have this negative anticipation means that you also must still have the desire that they could be changed ‘if only...’. It is important to ask yourself some questions about this persistent desire.

Why do you still nurture this desire, in the face of many years of invalidation?

Why is it so important to you even now?

What does it mean to your personal identity to hold onto this impossible desire?

What would happen to you - who would you become - if you left this desire go?

If on the other hand you are flowing in the second channel - Maybe This Time - you are clearly betting [for some reason] that this time there is a chance that you will get that which you have always lacked from these relationships. Also in this case you could usefully ask yourself some questions.

Why are you so willing to make such a bet on what is probably fairly slim evidence of change in others?

What do you think counts as a significant personal change in your family life?

Why do you think that others also will see the changes that you happen to see in your own or in their lives?

Don’t you remember what happened when you made similar bets on others in the past?

Here is what David Smail says about personal and interpersonal changes - ‘The ‘person’ is not a bounded entity separated off from the world in which he or she exists, but an interaction of body with world, consisting partially of both. People cannot control their beliefs and attitudes because people are their beliefs and attitudes. ...What seems like our ‘inside’ - what psychologists so often refer to as the ‘self’, ‘inner space’, etc. - does not exist in any material sense. Nor does it ‘exist’ in any immaterial sense - it is, rather, a way of referring to our self-consciousness. Exactly as we can talk to, as well as about, others we can talk to and about ourselves [though perhaps with differing degrees of honesty] concerning our experience of the world. ... What makes a difference to the way we are, what changes us or permits us to change, is not the voluntary manipulation of inner resources [for there is no ‘inner’] but the influence of or access to outer resources and powers. Neither ‘self’ nor world can be influenced or changed by anything other than the exercise of power.’ [David Smail [1993]. The Origins of Unhappiness - A New Understanding of Personal Distress. Harper Collins. p.p. 82-3]

In other words, unless we have personal access to pretty powerful resources for influencing others-as-collective, there is unlikely to be any sign of change in the way our relationships with others are organised and experienced. Bateson makes the same point when he talks about the impossibility of unilateral changes.

In yet other words, we have every reason to believe that the Same Old Story will be replicated till the end of time, and that the Maybe This Time... channel of anticipation is pure fantasy unless there is clear access to the powers and resources for triggering changes in social systems, in this case the family system as a network of conversations.

This is not an argument for the inevitability for becoming either continually disillusioned, or embittered and cynical [or at least heavily ironic] about our lot in life. Rather it is an argument for coming to see our social and interpersonal organisations differently - and to understand our place in these social inventions from a different point of view.

To start with I am emphasising the importance of the following points -

1. To be clearly aware of our desiring anticipations in relation to Others - and the impossibility of such desires ever being satisfied.

2. To see that ‘desire’ can only exist insofar as it remains recurrently unsatisfied. Every satisfaction of desire is only a guarantee for a further experience of unsatisfiable desire [think how drug addiction works - one always needs more of the same in order to achieve the same level of satisfaction].

3. To understand the nature of our acute sense of what is missing or lacking from our personhood as a result of the way that our parents related to us within their own constraining history.

4. To see clearly how our personal identity is formed around this lacking - usually as a recurrent negative experience of self / others.

5. To understand how our personal ‘lack’ fits into our overall family picture as one piece of a jig-saw - and come to see how our personal jig-saw part fits intimately with the jig-saw parts of all of the others in the family drama.

6. To see how our day-today living relationships [at home and at work] is channelled in a specific direction and form of experience by our experiencing of this central lack.

7. To perceive how our future choices are all determined, pre-empted, and configured by the ever-present core of lacking.

So far so good. But what are we supposed to take out of all of this? Are we to be Depressed? Resigned? Fatalistic? Deeply unhappy? Bitter & Twisted?

Not necessarily. Very often these feelings are in fact the standard responses to the realisation that we are unable to change that which we would like to be different. But there are other ways of confronting this awareness.

Consider for a moment what Erich Fromm was saying in 1979 when he wrote about the need for a new society to emerge which would bring forth the New Human Being whose character would be radically different to that of the humans in our consumer-dominated western civilisation. He listed 21 qualities necessary for the emergence of the new person.

1. Willingness to give up all forms of having, in order to fully be.

2. Security, sense of identity, and confidence based on faith in what one is, on one’s need for relatedness, interest, love, solidarity with the world around one, instead of on one’s desire to have, to possess, to control the world, and thus become the slave of one’s possession.

3. Acceptance of the fact that nobody and nothing outside oneself give meaning to life, but that this radical independence and no-thingness can become the condition for the fullest activity devoted to caring and sharing.

4. Being fully present where one is.

5. Joy that comes from giving and sharing, not from hoarding and exploiting.

6. Love and respect for life in all its manifestations, in the knowledge that not things, power, all that is dead, but life and everything that pertains to its growth are sacred.

7. Trying to reduce greed, hate, and illusions as much as one is capable.

8. Living without worshipping idols and without illusions, because one has reached a state that does not require illusions

9. Developing one’s capacity for love, together with one’s capacity for critical, unsentimental thought.

10. Shedding one’s narcissism and accepting the tragic limitations inherent in human existence.

11. Making the full growth of oneself and of one’s fellow beings the supreme goal of living.

12. Knowing that to reach this goal, discipline and respect for reality are necessary.

13. Knowing, also, that no growth is healthy that does not occur in a structure, but knowing, too, the difference between structure as an attribute of life and ‘order’ as an attribute of no-life, of the dead.

14. Developing one’s imagination, not as an escape from intolerable circumstances but as the anticipation of real possibilities, as a means to do away with intolerable circumstances.

15. Not deceiving others, but also not being deceived by others; one may be called innocent, but not naive.

16. Knowing oneself, not only the self one knows, but also the self one does not know - even though one has a slumbering knowledge of what one does not know.

17. Sensing one’s oneness with all life, hence giving up the aim of conquering nature, subduing it, exploiting it, raping it, destroying it, but trying, rather, to understand and co-operate with nature.

18. Freedom that is not arbitrariness but the possibility to be oneself, not as a bundle of greedy desires, but as a delicately balanced structure that at any moment is confronted with the alternative of growth or decay, life or death.

19. Knowing that evil and destructiveness are necessary consequences of failure to grow.

20. Knowing that only a few have reached perfection in all these qualities, but being without the ambition to ‘reach the goal’, in the knowledge that such ambition is only another form of greed, of having.

21. Happiness in the process of ever-growing aliveness, whatever the furthest point is that fate permits one to reach, for living as fully as one can is so satisfactory that the concern for what one might or might not attain has little chance to develop.

[p.p. 167-8, 1979, To Have or To Be? Abacus Books.]

In our given culture most of these 21 qualities are extremely difficult to develop, since they run entirely counter to the culture of capitalist-consumerism. Be that as it may, it is a good starting point to reflect upon this list of qualities describing the New Person, and to select just one as a starting point with which to make a new experiment this Christmas.

Instead of just hoping for some difference to happen, or being cynically condemned to expecting merely more of the same that we have always experienced in our family bosom, try on one of Fromm’s new qualities for size. Decide to approach your family gathering along a new channel - as laid down by the 21 qualities outlined above.

Many of the items can be gathered under the heading of the ‘Growthful Choice’ as opposed to the ‘Deadening Choice’.

From this list we can see that the value to grow, evolve, and develop oneself as a human being is contrasted with the opposite trend of failure to grow, of decay, of dying. We are presented with this fork in the road continuously. How do we know in which direction lies life and in which death? The answer is that any choice informed by the positive values for Being as opposed to ‘Having’ is likely to take us forward into a growthful direction. We can attempt a summarising list in the form of these following contrasts.


Living with a Sense of Generosity Vs Having-Greed, Control
Caring and genuine relationships Vs Desire to possess & be Possessed
Personal presence Vs absence / unavailability to others
Respectful Vs object-oriented
Without illusions - acceptance of failings Vs deluded
Creative dissolution of problems Vs deadening focus on order
Self-critical awareness Vs escaping in imagination
Sense of being a part of nature Vs feeling apart from nature

To the extent that we can try to locate ourselves on at least one of the Growthful Choice list and not on the Deadening Choice list, we can legitimately have hope for some differences in our future relationships with others.  

The more that we can avoid the fork in the road that is focused upon ‘having’ [possessing, owning, controlling, consuming etc. ] the better that our living will become.

The more we can positively choose the fork in the road leading towards the Being direction the better we may become as persons-in-relationships.

The less that we think of others who are in relationships with us as a ‘source’ of something that we want to ‘get’ or ‘receive’, the less disillusioned we will become.

The less that we see our parents as a ‘source of love or validation’ then the less we will approach them with an expectation that we ‘might get it this time’, [or indeed with the expectation that this time will be no different because once again they ‘will not give us what we deserve’].

But we are so used to reading others in this way - as a ‘source of’ that which we believe that we need and deserve, that it is difficult to begin to approach these same people in a different way. But if we do manage to approach them in a different way what we find is this: - they are no longer the ‘same people’ at all. What we see and experience are in fact different people. Our parents, for example, come to look very different once we liberate ourselves - and them - from the framework of being a ‘begrudging source’ of some thing that we want or have wanted for many years. It is this possibility of seeing your parents as ‘strangers’, as people who you actually do not know [once you let slip the label of them as a ‘begrudging source’] and begin to approach them from a different point of view - from the direction of a different interest in who they might be, and might have been in their living.

Your sense of what has always been missing from your life is like the initial irritating grain for the oyster, which once entered into its system provokes the oyster to produce the self-protecting substances which grow over time around the irritant until it produces a pearl. Unfortunately, the type of ‘emotive substances’ that we secrete around our sense of irritating lack is usually premised upon the ‘having’ fork in the road. So we remain focused on the irritating lack, and the substances we produce serve only to make things even more irritating by prompting us to make useless demands on others, or to take up very ‘irritated attitudes’ with those who refuse us.

But instead of spitting our irritation for what we do not ‘have’ at the presumed guilty parties, we have a different fork in the road to choose. We can encounter our irritating lack with a different type of emotive secretion - this one based upon the Growthful Choice values outlined above. They represent a very different set of emotional values.

They focus in part on ourselves in terms of developing a self-critical awareness - as for e.g. in going beyond all that which we know so well about ourselves, and beginning to elaborate those obscured aspects of ourselves that lie beyond the simple formulae of ‘deprivation’, of ‘love hunger’ and so forth.

They also focus upon the manner in which we can sense ourselves to be a constituent part of nature rather than feeling to be standing apart from nature. The latter positioning encourages in us an exploitative attitude which prompts us to extort from others that which we feel we need and deserve. In other words an entirely manipulative approach to others.

Instead the Growthful Choice secretes positive emotions around our sense of lacking in such a way as to develop, at every choice point, a value for personal movement and development which carries us ever further away from the flow of possessions, greediness and exploitativeness. Over time, and continuous growthful secretions, we develop [unintentionally] the pearl of personal wisdom which is described in the list above.

The pearl is composed of acceptance, forgiveness, understanding, conciliation, tolerance, presence, respect for all nature’s works, and the elaboration of the sense of personal creativity for the meaning of one’s life.

As a final inspiration for taking the alternative fork in the road this Christmas, let us turn to Winnie-the-Pooh as representative of the quiet connectedness with nature that we need to develop if we are to get anywhere. [quotes from p.p. 111-2, The Tao of Pooh - Benjamin Hoff, 1982, Methuen].

‘What do you like doing best in the world Pooh?’

‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best -- ‘ and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.

The honey doesn’t taste so good once it is being eaten; the goal doesn’t mean so much once it is reached; the reward is not so rewarding once it has been given. If we add up all the rewards in our lives, we won’t have very much. But if we add up all the spaces between the rewards, we’ll come up with quite a bit. And if we add up all the rewards and spaces, then we’ll have everything - every minute of the time that we spent. What if we could enjoy it?

The Christmas presents once opened are Not So Much Fun as they were while we were in the process of examining, lifting, shaking, thinking about, and opening them. Three hundred sixty-five days later, we try again and find that the same thing has happened. Each time the goal is reached, it becomes Not So Much Fun and we’re off to reach the next one, then the next one, then the next.

That doesn’t mean that the goals we have don’t count. They do, mostly because they cause us to go through the process, and it’s the process that makes us wise, happy or whatever. If we do things in the wrong sort of way, it makes us miserable, angry, confused and things like that. The goal has to be right for us, and it has to be beneficial, in order to ensure a beneficial process. But aside from that, it’s really the process that’s important. Enjoyment of the process is the secret that erases the myths of the Great Reward and Saving Time.

What could we call that moment before we begin to eat the honey? Some would call it anticipation, but we think it’s more than that. We would call it awareness. It’s when we become happy and realise it, if only for an instant. By Enjoying the Process, we can stretch that awareness out so that it’s no longer only a moment, but covers the whole thing. Then we can have a lot of fun. Just like Pooh.’

 Mere Merryness

Vincent Kenny




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