• Joel Harter

Adjusting Our Expectations: A Reflection for Holy Week

We live in what Brené Brown calls a culture of shame and scarcity in which we feel compelled continually to prove our worth through productivity, performance, and comparison. This is true of American culture generally and for higher education more specifically. We see this at Elon University in our culture of busyness and over-involvement, where we so often assume that our worth is dependent on the length of our email signature, resume, or cv. If we’re not continually doing something that adds to our list of involvement and accomplishment, then we are failing. And if that’s not enough, our busyness must appear effortless: we feel the pressure to be super-involved while looking fabulously happy, healthy, and put together.

To be clear, this is not just an Elon problem, and to our credit, we are beginning to notice and discuss this aspect of our culture, but many of us at Elon University struggle with feelings of inadequacy — feeling not smart enough, beautiful enough, involved enough, organized enough, enough enough — and that fuels ever anxious doing, proving, and moving. It is (frankly) exhausting.

When I first thought about this reflection and what it means to be sheltered at home during Christian Holy Week, when Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus, I assumed that I would focus primarily on the need to lower our expectations. The pandemic is forcing all of us, religious or not, to adjust and lower our expectations around doing and productivity. Many of our activities and involvement have been literally shut down. What does this mean for our campus culture when so much of our self-worth is dependent on our productive doing and engaging?

A good friend and Elon alumna recently shared with me her experience working remotely. The first week, she was organized and productive, embracing the new reality with energy and good spirit. The second week she could barely stay awake and found herself napping throughout the day.

My experience has been somewhat similar. I often feel like the disciples in the garden who could not stay awake while Jesus prayed and awaited his arrest: “Could you not stay awake with me one hour?” Those of us trying to stay focused and motivated while studying or working remotely can appreciate anew Jesus’s observation that “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40-41, NRSV).

Social media has been full of reminders to be more patient with ourselves. Getting through the day — waking up, getting dressed, taking care of basic needs, managing our anxiety — all of this is real emotional work. That’s partly why many schools, including Elon, have offered pass/fail options for this semester. Education is not the same online, but also, we are not the same. We’re not learning or thinking as effectively, and while, yes, we should make an effort to stay awake, to do some work and study, I appreciate that the second time Jesus finds his closest disciples sleeping, he lets them sleep. It is okay to rest more, to sleep more, even to Netflix more, if that’s what we need to get through the day and through these anxious times.

The part of Holy Week that I most identify with this year is not waiting in the garden on Thursday, but Saturday, the waiting between sleep and waking, between death and resurrection, when we do not know what’s next or how long the waiting will last.

Think about it. That first Holy Saturday the disciples had just lost their leader, their hoped for messiah, and they had no idea what was next. Their leader and friend was gone. They not only needed to adjust their expectations, they needed entirely new and different expectations, because all they had hoped for was lost. Even when the women had seen Jesus and testified to his resurrection, the disciples did not believe them. Their imaginations were not yet ready for the strange new incredible reality.

We tend today to skip over Saturday. Many Protestant churches do not have services on Saturday. They recognize Friday and Sunday, but not so much Saturday, and yet often, I feel like Saturday is where we are — waiting, hurting, longing, not sure what will happen next, whether it will be good and hopeful or not, not even sure what exactly we’re longing for.

Many Christian traditions have Easter Vigils late Saturday night and (traditionally) into Sunday morning. The service traditionally begins outside the church, with people gathering with lit candles as midnight approaches. Once I attended a vigil service that began gathered around a fire pit.

This gathering by night in darkness by candlelight or firelight signifies the light that persists through the darkness, waiting, and longing. I think of the opening of the gospel of John, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (NIV). Sometimes the light is only a flicker, and sometimes all we can do is wait and wonder, but that longing, however feeble, is still hopeful. There is light and warmth in even just a flicker.

In this strange period of waiting, we need to adjust our expectations, especially for ourselves. It’s okay to feel lost. It’s okay to be less productive, to do less, to lose focus, to think less clearly. We need to lower our expectations for ourselves, to be kinder and gentler with ourselves and with one another.

Yesterday, I was walking and listening to NPR, and New York Times columnist David Brooks shared this about suffering: “I'm in love with this quote by Paul Tillich, a 1950s theologian, who says that moments of suffering interrupt your life and they remind you you're not the person you thought you were. They carve through the floor of the basement of your soul and reveal much deeper depths than you ever knew you had before” (link to interview).

We need to lower our expectations, but we also need to expand them beyond our imagination. We do not know what will happen next or when our waiting will end, but the wilderness moments in our lives, the Holy Saturday moments, help us discover deeper depths of hope and possibility. New possibilities emerge for us when we give up being in control.

Whether you are Christian or not, I encourage you to light a candle. Go outside into the darkness if possible, hold your lighted candle, and ponder the light that shines for you in this waiting and longing. Right now, in this moment, as unpleasant and uncomfortable as it may be, with all the anxiety and frustration that you may be feeling. Right now, what gives you hope? What deeper depths are you discovering? What new possibilities are opening for you, even if still out of sight, around the corner, waiting to appear?

Joel Harter supports all the student organizations and affiliated ministries in religious and spiritual life on campus, and he develops programs and multifaith collaborations that support the spiritual and inner well-being of Elon students, faculty, and staff. Joel is an ordained congregationalist minister, who advises LEAF, PUG, and Elon Yoga Club. Joel has graduate degrees from Northwestern University, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Chicago.

Contact: jharter@elon.edu

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