Wednesday, June 18, 2014

“What do you hope to get out of this?”

world traveler off on another adventure
"What do you hope to get out of this?"

Well, that’s a sure fire way to set oneself up for disappointment. As a retreat leader, I used to ask that question to help determine which kids were really ready for the retreat experience. Nine times out of ten, the ones who said they were looking forward to “the crying part” or were expecting a profound spriritual experience were the ones who left slightly to strongly disappointed at the end. I remember one such student angrily berating me and the entire retreat staff at the end because she didn’t think she or her classmates cried enough or that the experience went deep enough. The ones who answered by saying they honestly didn’t know what to expect were the ones who were most likely to have a genuinely moving experience. The same goes for pretty much every adventure we go into. When we enter with specific expectations rather than general hopes, we are setting ourselves up to be let down, putting unrealistic responsibilities on all the people we interact with – whether or not they are aware of them, and lessening our chances of having unforeseeable but incredible experiences.

This was a hard concept to explain to the high schoolers and is a hard concept to explain to my daughters now. The challenge is anticipating enough to be prepared, but then letting go and just participating in the world as it comes. We have to find a balance between planning and just going with the flow.

When my older daughter and I went to Ukraine, learning this lesson was a huge part of the adventure. Before leaving, we talked about having an adventure spirit. I explained that we couldn’t control everything that happened on our trip, so we shouldn’t go with specific expectations. We looked through a guide book and talked about things we had done on previous trips to get general ideas about the kinds of things that might happen. We picked a couple goals – improve our Ukrainian language skills, see some historical locations, relax – and packed to be prepared for anything. We made an adventure journal and set off.

unplanned, totally blissful hammock adventure in the Carpathian Mountains

Each day, we would remind each other to find the adventure in the day. When weird, unpredicted things happened to us, we would say, “well, this is an adventure!” Each evening, as we were winding down and getting ready to sleep, we would talk about, “what was your favorite adventure today?” Adventure became our key word and a great way to turn discomfort into smiles. It wasn’t always easy. Some days the adventures were seriously uncomfortable, irritating, and sometimes even a bit scary. We got through it all, though, and came away with some amazing memories.
real wild hedgehogs discovered while cherry picking

Reminding ourselves to participate instead of anticipate helped us to focus on the incredible things that were happening around us – tiny frogs covering sidewalks, mud wraps, hedgehogs, cherry picking on the border with Romania – instead of focusing on the things that we couldn’t control such as how other people behaved, the weather, the food options, etc.

Here are some key things to try to do to find that balance between reckless flying by the seat of one’s pants and being overly expectant.

  1. Think in broad terms while packing if you are having an adventure far from home. Are you packing that dress for any special occasion or are you anticipating finding a great disco and dancing with a tall handsome stranger with dreamy blue eyes and a melt your knees accent (that did happen to me and is why I now have two children)? Are you daydreaming about really detailed adventures you’d like to have, repeating those details in your mind, or are you daydreaming about multiple, varied what-ifs? This is where my older daughter really struggles.  She likes to put together the most intricately detailed plans for what will happen even down to what other people will say, what shoes she’ll be wearing, what the weather will be like, etc. In other words, impossible plans.
  2. Read guide books to get ideas, but not to make minute-by-minute itineraries. No matter where you are going, weather, traffic, and unforeseeable events can spoil the best made plans. When we are traveling, we put together target lists or lists of things we think would be fun to check out or try. When we get where we are going, though, we don’t see that list as must do’s. We remain open to finding a different experience. Our list is sort of a jumping off point or back up to finding something better once we get places. My husband loves chatting with new people, so he usually makes a new friend and then finds out from them if our target list is good or if we’d be missing cooler things. The chat is usually the most memorable adventure of the trip although there is no way we could plan on finding friendly people everywhere we go. 
    The kittens she found at every place we visited were
    the highlights of the trip for her,
    something not included in any guide book.
  3. When you talk about hopes and goals, leave room for interpretation. Hope is a vital part of being a happy walrus. I need hope. My girls need hope. Goals are important, too. Goals are what drive us forward and ensure personal progress. When we talk about hopes and goals, we try to keep them general. We hope to make new friends, but don’t limit what kind of friends. We hope to learn new things, but don’t limit where that knowledge will come from. We hope to be nicer people, but don’t limit who we will be nice to or how the kindness will manifest. For goals, we set a goal that relies primarily on our own actions, e.g.  grades, polishing hockey or gymnastics skills, sending out a certain number of applications each month, sewing a certain number of items for the shop. We then approach those goals knowing that we may need to change strategies, find help down the road, or take longer than we initially thought.
  4. Practice finding adventures every day. Even when we aren’t on vacation, we try to have adventure days. Sometimes the adventure is just going to the playground and meeting someone new. The other day, we had an adventure when our dishwasher broke and the maintenance guy came to fix it. He turned out to be a very friendly, super interesting new friend. By trying to find the adventure in every day, we get in the habit of thinking “this day holds something really cool” and letting it happen rather than trying to force it. As my girls get older and the more we practice thinking in terms of appreciating the adventures that happen, it gets easier for them to stop whining about what they want to happen and genuinely appreciate what is happening.

This is all a work in progress, but I am hoping that by learning how to find adventures my daughters will be able to go through life creating memories, collecting cool stories, and avoiding the frustration that comes with expecting specific experiences, feelings, or actions from others, and that is a good, general hope.

my husband's great-aunt and a true expert of joy finding and adventure leading