Heart of Darkness 2

by Christopher Lovejoy on July 28, 2010 · 2 comments

In Heart of Darkness, I paved the way for me to examine what I call the quicksilver challenges of expectation in our daily interactions.

Before I expose these challenges for what they are, with suggestions on how to deal with them in our daily interactions, I’d like to return to a time in my life when I was humbled by an unusual set of circumstances.

A Personal Story

On a cold, clear, Canadian Saturday morning in early February 2005, my life took a turn for the worse.

I remember it was close to 8:30 in the morning. I bought my groceries and returned my shopping cart to an area outside and began walking.

Within seconds, and without warning, I slipped on some black ice. On my way down, my right foot got caught under the weight of my body. I heard a crack before landing on my back. Too stunned to think, I instinctively raised my right leg. My right foot was limp. It felt cold and numb.

For a moment, I was terrified. Had I just forever lost my ability to walk?

I cried out for help. Someone rushed to my aid; someone else called for an ambulance. Someone brought me a blanket for the cold; someone else came forward and offered to be a witness to what had happened. In the midst of the fear and the pain, I felt immensely grateful for the support.

I waited for twenty minutes in the cold, shivering uncontrollably. The paramedics arrived, assessed the situation, applied remedy, offered reassurance, and gathered details. They were friendly, competent, and efficient.

Expectations fulfilled.

Just after I arrived at the hospital, my trial by fire began. In the hours and days that followed, I learned the meaning of “hell is other people”.

I waited patiently in a corridor that led to the emergency area, with the paramedic who had accompanied me in the ambulance to the hospital.

A nurse approached me, and with as much hostility as she could muster, verbally assaulted me with her first question (this was not someone having a bad day; this was personal – for her). A sense of dread washed through me, but I quickly recovered my composure and answered her question calmly. Her wrathful verbal assault continued, however, and I continued to answer her questions calmly, until at last, she finished, and I was placed in a wheelchair and taken to the emergency area.

The emergency room was packed. I was parked against a wall near the reception desk and left there for over two hours without a word of what would happen next.

I was more than a little shocked by the density of the crowd. It was standing room only. I observed the generosity of those who tried to make the best of the crowded conditions. I watched them offer seats to those in need and comfort children who cried in pain.

At last, I was wheeled to reception, where a woman did the paper work for my entry into the hospital.

A dark, pervasive mistrust infected her questions. She seemed more than a little burned out. I answered her questions amiably, but her mistrust persisted. When I couldn’t answer a question, her icy mistrust turned into malevolence.

I was at last transferred to another area of the hospital on the same floor – an area that didn’t open for another two hours. I practiced meditating.

When the area finally opened at 1 pm in the afternoon, I waited some more before someone came to collect me.

Inside, I crossed paths with an orderly. In a mock-jovial tone, he wondered aloud, and brashly, whether I had kicked my niece.

I didn’t bother to tell him that I had no niece to kick.

After getting x-rays for my ankle, a medic met with me and told me about his medical adventures on the battlefields of the Iraq-Iran war. He recounted tales that made it clear by the tone of his voice that what I suffered was nothing compared to what he had seen others endure.

After giving me adequate warning, he took hold of my ankle and pushed it hard against my fractured fibula, forcing them together and causing me to scream in pain.

Not long afterwards, the orthopedic surgeon arrived. Prior to his arrival, a doctor had voiced the possibility that I might not need surgery on my ankle, but when the surgeon took a look at my x-rays, he declared that I needed the surgery. He declared this with no preamble, and with no reason or explanation given.

I wondered aloud about rehabilitative alternatives to having surgery. He got irate at the suggestion (did he think I was questioning his judgment?), and responded loudly and arrogantly that I needed surgery. It seemed I wasn’t supposed to ask about alternatives.

A Lingering Doubt

I spent 60 hours in this less than ideal environment, waiting and fasting for over 36 hours before I could get an operation to secure the fibula in my leg to my ankle with a pin, a metal plate, and seven screws (I saw the post-op x-ray).

A few of the staff seemed kind and caring enough, but most were cold, apathetic, uncaring, hostile, rude, arrogant, or impatient. I could only imagine what they felt they had to endure in their work at the hospital.

I stayed humble, for the most part, throughout my time at the hospital, but in retrospect, I’ve often wondered whether I could have been more assertive in getting my needs met, and more persistent and affirmative in voicing my expectations.

But then I recall how traumatized I felt after my fall, how uncertain I felt about where I was headed, how diminished I felt by those who found reason to belittle my condition.

I must admit, I handled my situation the best way I knew how, but still, I felt a lingering doubt that I could have done more. In what follows, I aim to put this doubt to rest.

Expose the Presumption

I’ve learned that dealing effectively with any attempt to impose an expectation on you implies, in the face of the imposition, that you respond to an absence of permission. It also requires that you expose a presumption that someone knows what is good for you, better for you, or best for you.

When the surgeon declared that I needed surgery on my ankle, I had every right to expect that I have a preamble to his declaration, and that I have a reason or an explanation for why it was necessary to operate. At the time, I was too slow to assert this right and have it met on the spot.

Doctor, would you mind telling me what’s going on with my ankle?

Doctor, why is it necessary for you to operate? Please give me a reason.

Instead, I got ahead of myself and inquired about alternatives to surgery. This inquiry was naturally met with stiff resistance from the surgeon. At that point, I felt like I had no choice but to accept his verdict. Looking back, however, I realize I could have been more forthright in getting answers.

Doctor, some time ago (indicating the medic), he aligned the bones for my ankle; is a cast not enough for the bones to heal? If not, why not?

In light of these considerations, here’s what I’ve learned from my experience with the surgeon.

Question authority. Relentlessly.

But do it calmly, with composure, to keep your sense of dignity intact.

Acknowledge, for yourself, the lack of permission in the imposition so that you can confront it and call it out.

Doctor, you seem to think I have no choice in the matter. Perhaps you’d care to explain why.

Allow yourself to feel any sense of dread at having your sense of dignity undermined by the presumption.

Confront the presumption.

Expose it with questions and do it without apology.

Doctor, I’d like to think that I can make an informed choice about what is best for me in this situation.

Doctor, what’s the worse that could happen if I didn’t get the surgery? How likely would that be for me?

Doctor, even if you might not agree with alternatives to surgery, I’d still like to hear what they are, and why you think they’re not good enough.

In summary, confront the imposition implied by the expectation (that is, give yourself permission to question anything that doesn’t make sense to you), and expose the presumption that is hiding inside the expectation (that is, give yourself the permission to get answers so that you can know what is best for you).

By extension, you have every right to do this, in any relationship, for any reason, under any circumstance.

Expose the Judgment

I felt a lot of bad vibes coming from many of the hospital staff. On many occasions, I was being judged for no apparent reason and I’m quite certain I was not projecting any feelings of inadequacy or insufficiency.

With every failed expectation lies a temptation to make a judgment that presumes to know, as a result of the failure, that someone’s promise is barely, rarely, or only somewhat worthy of attention or consideration.

Before I entered the emergency area, a nurse saw fit to verbally assault me in a wrathful manner. I didn’t have to utter a single word. Being placid and patient, I didn’t have to do anything to deserve her wrathful vengeance.

When I look back on this encounter, I might have stopped her cold with a simple question: “excuse me, but is there a problem?” That might have had the effect of drawing out the failed expectation and the negative judgment hidden inside it.

“Excuse me, but is there a problem?”, spoken calmly and casually, is a powerful question, and can be used again and again if you’re not satisfied with the tone of a conversation or discussion. It can be used again and again to get to the heart of why you haven’t lived up to expectations.

And if, at last, you get an answer that exposes the judgment, then you’re in a much better position to address the expectation. Is it reasonable? If so, is there any room for me to apologize, if that seems desirable or necessary? And if I do apologize, is that enough? If not, why not? If the expectation is unreasonable, it would merely be a simple matter to call it out.

Some variations on the question in question might include:

  • Excuse me, but is there a problem I don’t know about?
  • Excuse me, but is there something I need to know?
  • Excuse me, but is there something you’re not telling me?
  • Excuse me, but is there a problem I can help you with?

When asking some variation of this question, it’s best to keep your cool, to stay calm and focused, so that you can draw out the expectation and the nasty little snake of a judgment that lies coiled inside it.

Obviously, you’re not going to do this with someone who can beat the crap out of you. It’s best employed with those who act in an official capacity, in situations and interactions where you have every right to expect that you be treated with respect.

Always use your best judgment about exposing a judgment; sometimes, it just might not be worth spending the time or trouble to do so.

If the judgment is clearly about the judge, and the judgment is made around a trivial or frivolous matter, then ignoring or dismissing it is probably your best option.

Expose the Dismissal

I was gobsmacked when the orderly asked me whether I had kicked the niece I never had – not because he thought I had a niece, but because he thought he could be cruel. With a patient. In a hospital setting.

Unless I’m living on the wrong planet, most patients in a hospital, I believe, naturally expect to be treated with a modicum of respect, especially after suffering a traumatic injury. I learned that a cruel and simple little question can invalidate this expectation.

When someone ignores or dismisses your legitimate expectation, you need to remember that you still matter.

That you still have value. That you still have promise as a person.

You need to keep in mind that some people are invariably cruel, with a compulsive need to invalidate the promise in others as an expression of their own perceived lack of promise.

I ignored the question, but I might have performed a legitimate act of defiance with a simple pretense:

Kick my niece?

I wouldn’t dare. She’s 7 feet tall and weighs over 400 pounds.

A ridiculous statement such as this requires a creative, responsive wit, which you can develop and practice on those you already know.

When someone crushes one of your expectations with a snide comment or question, just be ready to tap into your imagination, to be creative without being cruel, and zap the invalidator with an off-the-wall comment or question of your own.

With practice, this quick little defense will expose dismissals of your value, worth, or promise with ease.

Some Perspective

In my first post, Promise and Possibility, I introduced The Dreaded Expectation – an expectation with a dreaded consequence.

In my next post, A Reasonable Expectation, I explored the origin of The Dreaded Expectation, and the context from which it arises.

As a result of my third post, Positive Expectations, I expanded the purview of my exploration of expectation to include imposition and presumption, rejection, and invalidation.

In my fourth post, Quicksilver Challenges, I identified what I call the three quicksilver challenges to expectation in our interactions so that we might deal effectively …

  1. with those who impose expectations, presuming to know better or best;
  2. with those who judge and reject us through their expectations; and
  3. with those who attempt to invalidate our own legitimate expectations.

In my fifth, and most recent post, Heart of Darkness, I provided some justification for why we can no longer treat these challenges to expectation as casually as we have in the past.

In this post, I have attempted to make these challenges more concrete with examples from my own life.

A Quick Rundown

When someone imposes an expectation on you, presuming to know what is good, better, or best for you, you have an opportunity to set him/her straight about what you know is good, better, or best for you. And if you don’t know, and you’re dealing with someone in a position of authority, then you have an opportunity to question and explore your options.

When someone judges and rejects you through one of his/her expectations, you have an opportunity to affirm your value as a person. You do this with a preamble to asking a negative-judgment-stopping question: “excuse me, but …”. For example, “excuse me, but is there a problem?”

When someone tries to invalidate one of your own legitimate expectations, you have an opportunity to take back your sense of dignity by practicing a creative, responsive wit. You can do this by saying or doing something casually and coolly dismissive, ridiculous, or laughable.

What these quicksilver challenges have in common is a rather pathetic attempt by one person to best another in a world of plenty.

The implications of meeting or failing to meet these challenges effectively have serious repercussions for your own path of fulfillment. Meet them effectively and you stay on course. Fail to meet them and you fall off the path.

Blessings in Disguise

Rather than dreading these challenges, I would suggest viewing them as blessings in disguise – as opportunities to grow in your promise as a person, to realize better and greater possibilities for your life, to prevent getting mercilessly sucked into any heart of darkness.

The heart of darkness is a metaphor for the absence of love in the light of truth at the heart of humanity.

The darkness that lies at the heart of humanity is dispelled with love in the light of truth, which in turn arises from a sense of worthiness.

If I feel worthy and worthwhile, then I am ready, willing, and able to give and receive love.

The expectations that we have of ourselves and of others are mere reminders of what we need to feel worthy of ourselves and of each other so that we might love and be loved.

In the absence of love, we are, all of us, compelled to bear the burdens of imposition, presumption, negativity, rejection, and invalidation – all manifestations of a heart of darkness that arise inside our expectations.

In the presence of love, we can skillfully learn to offset imposition with permission, presumption with innocence, negativity with positivity, rejection with acceptance, and invalidation with appreciation.

As a final warning, “brushing it off” might be a useful response to your quicksilver challenges, but if they’re bug-like in their character, they might give you a nasty sting, they might have the habit of coming back again and again, or they might take up residence in your mind or heart.

I think it best not to underestimate the power of bugs.

But then again, a quick and easy brush-off might serve you just as well.

Each quicksilver challenge is best dealt with on an individual basis, while keeping in mind the larger situational and relational context from which it arises.

Introductory Conclusion

If you’ve followed me this far, you might have gotten the impression that I’m someone with a kick-ass attitude. Such is not the case. I am essentially positive, knowing full well that like attracts like.

Be the peace, love, joy, bliss, and grace you wish to see, and hear, and feel.

In subsequent posts, I intend to provide positive, constructive guidance for your personal fulfillment, in a way that is clear and concise, in a way that feels easy on your mind, heart, soul, and spirit.

Enough of this darkness.


Insight Hunter July 29, 2010 at 8:54 am

I read your newest post, and I think it is the best one yet. The story is very interesting in and of itself, but you used it in an apt and very precise way to make a particular point. It was engaging and compelling to me as a reader and the message came across naturally and easily. You kept the “brushing it off” idea in mind and you’re probably considering possible counter arguments readers might make as you write and starting to address them. Very well done.

There is some psychological well-being that comes from self-expression at negativity expressed towards you. You don’t have to be hostile as you have shown, but you can diplomatically express your dislike or use other techniques to disarm the negativity of the other person. This should be empowering to the individual and remind him or her that he or she is not a door mat, and that a proper level of decorum and dignity is necessary when dealing with him or her. This will likely help self-confidence and develop more of a sense of self.

It is often hard to come up with a polite, diplomatic, as well as assertive reply off the top of one’s head. For myself, I like to be nice, so will tend to say nothing than to risk expressing myself improperly, and coming off as too confrontational or agressive. However, with practice, it should come easier.

I am fortunate to not have too many negative expectations imposed upon me. I am now thinking if I can confront problems in a constructive way without too much risk of more animosity, social awkwardness, or added negativity, I should, instead of simply “shruging it off” as I would previously.

Christopher Lovejoy July 29, 2010 at 10:48 am

Greetings, Insight Hunter, thanks ever so much for your reply. This was not an easy story for me to tell, but in the end, when it came time for me to post it, it felt worthwhile for me to share. I know that people generally enjoy a story that inspires as well as informs, entertains as well as educates. Having a blog of my own provides me with a platform to share the personal as well as the impersonal aspects of living a life of fulfillment.

I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts on holding your own in the face of negativity. I feel that the ability to do so is an excellent gauge of how well you’re doing in your personal life. I believe I’ve achieved enough clarity on three primary interpersonal challenges to be able to expand on them further. I’m not yet sure whether I’ll do this at some point in the future, but I do know that it would certainly be a worthwhile project to do.

It is often hard to come up with a polite, diplomatic, as well as assertive reply off the top of one’s head. Yes, this seems to be a challenge for many, especially in situations where they feel themselves to be under stress or duress for one reason or another. Your calm, cool, collected demeanor can quickly abandon you in such situations, leaving you with a rather weak choice to either react or withhold. For practice, I wonder whether it might make any sense to actually place yourself in situations where you know you’ll be challenged to respond effectively.

“Brushing it off” or “shrugging it off” can sometimes be the best way to go, potentially saving you time, money, effort, and peace of mind. By the same token, when you do confront your interpersonal challenges with the intention of honing your skill at doing so, I can see it as a worthwhile investment of your time and energy.

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