What's Tony Thinking

The Revolution of Lowered Expectations


The other day the local PBS affiliate, KUOW, was asking guests and listeners alike, “What are you missing during this time? And how are you replacing it?”

My thought was, “What about this time are you enjoying, and might you miss when it’s over?”

I’m enjoying lowered expectations. The day doesn’t have to be “full.” There is always time for a walk. I don’t feel a big need to be “productive,” (though I understand many don’t have that luxury or choice). Moreover, this lowering of the bar is sort of required by this time, by “sheltering in place,” and avoiding social contact. Options are fewer, closer to home. I’m not buying nor building (which is I understand is a problem for the economy) though I am biking. We’re keeping the shopping and errands we do to a minimum, and often doing those by walking.

Of course, the more customary form of the slogan heading this blog goes in the opposite direction. “The Revolution of Rising Expectations.” People need to expect more. Raise your expectations! Achieve greatness!

My thought is that large swaths of our society are not afflicted primarily by low expectations, so much as unrelenting, burdensomely high expectations.

There are a couple of ads for the PBS network that run regularly on KCTS. Each show an adult and a child, sharing a moment. The punchline is, “BE MORE!” Just once, wouldn’t it be interesting for an adult and child to smile as the words “BE LESS” are intoned above them? I think that the slogan on the Lowe’s Home Improvement store trucks sort of said it all, “More of Everything!”

Last year I came upon an intriguing essay by the writer, Avram Alpert. It was about the “good enough” life. It had been the winning essay at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Philosophy Night in 2019.

Alpert makes the case that the pursuit of greatness is a problem not the solution. This thought is based on a view of life itself as “good enough,” not perfect or perfectible. Life means both joy and suffering, both experiencing nurture and experiencing frustration, and having the capacity to handle the harder stuff.

He mentions some less dominant, less “greatness-obsessed” schools of thought that envision “the good life” differently.

Like “Middle Path” Buddhism. “In this radical vision of the good enough life, our task is not to make the perfect human society, but rather a good enough world in which each of us has sufficient (but never too many) resources to handle our encounters with the inevitable sufferings of a world full of chance and complexity.”

Striving for “good enough” does not mean being a slacker. But it is a different orientation that trying to be first or best or to win — or making sure that you kid does. Being good enough,” writes Alpert,” is not easy . . . to be good enough to loved ones to both support them and allow them to experience frustration. And it remains to be seen if we as a society can establish a good-enough relation to one another, where individuals and nations do not strive for their unique greatness, but rather work together to create the conditions of decency necessary for all.”

As noted, at least large swaths, of our society are forever seeking more, not only money, but experiences, status, ways to stand out, or as we now say “virtue-signal,” as well as get ahead. Some call this the culture of “meritocracy.” The underlying idea is that the best win. Success and affluence it is not only your achievement but that to which you are entitled.

From a Christian or theological point of view this is world view shorn of grace. It lacks the sense of either “there but for the grace of God, go I,” empathy for those who struggle or suffer. And the gift/ grace element in life vanishes in the race to stand out. By way of contrast, if grace is part of your world view, you recognize how much you have been given, not just how much you’re done or deserve.

Alpert closes with a note about the implications of the “good enough” life for the environment. “Achieving this will also require us to develop a good enough relation to our natural world, one in which we recognize both the abundance and the limitations of the planet we share with infinite other life forms, each seeking its own path toward good-enoughness. If we do manage any of these things, it will not be because we have achieved greatness, but because we have recognized that none of them are achievable until greatness itself is forgotten.”

A part of the nature of this time is that we are experiencing limits, which America and Americans have generally pushed against, often in a pursuit of greatness (variously defined). But there can be grace in limits and greatness within limits. Not every day can be, or has to be, full. Not every day has to be “great.” “Good enough” is just fine, not only right now, but maybe always.



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