Posted by: shelliejelly | October 15, 2009


In his book Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales quotes sociologist Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents:

“We construct an expected world because we can’t handle the complexity of the present one, and then process the information that fits the expected world, and find reasons to exclude the information that might contradict it. Unexpected or unlikely interactions are ignored when we make our construction.”

I’ve been constructing expected worlds for most of my life, and holding myself to them. My feeling of expectation may be different from what Perrow is speaking of above, perhaps, but something about this quote struck me like a slap across the face. I have specific emotional responses that are based on a world I’ve sewed myself into so I’m continually adjusting, scrambling, moving the lens so as not to disturb the continuity.

Some expectations are based on what I’ve been able to perceive from others, and these usually have me bending and flexing to maintain a world that I feel others expect. No drinking or coming home drunk. Finish a four-year college out East. Go to graduate school. The need to please was, sometimes still is, paralyzing. I walk around on emotional  eggshells, watching and waiting for the unexpected to enter, hoping I can get there soon enough to quiet the intruders, catch the wavering word and swallow it down myself, soothe everyone back into their appropriate place.

I’ve always been a peacemaker and, as such, my job has always been to anticipate expectations and build a world that fits these visions. Invisible but necessary. Strange for a woman born a Leo, perhaps.

When I think of the ways I’ve twisted myself inside out to glue a reality together, I understand Perrow’s notion of processing only information that fits our expected world. In my experience, I sometimes went one step further, perhaps, not only not acknowledging what didn’t fit the expected world but actively participating in recreating moments that got away from me. I shoveled guilt and responsibility on my shoulders at every corner.

I drank too much, said things I didn’t mean. Well, I meant them, but word choice was bad, evoking emotion and anger when all I meant to suggest was concern, a willing ear. I awoke not remembering, but was quickly reminded with an icy question from my mother: “Do you know what you said to your brother last night?” There was no room for explanation; the minute the words slipped from her mouth and crashed into my ear drums with the force of a runaway train, I was finished. I opened my mouth wide and gulped down guilt like I was eating my favorite dessert. The pit of my stomach curled into itself, a rock blocking my throat, tears becoming my new language. Nevermind the countless times my brother behaved hideously, “Please forgive me,” was met with “Not this trip.” The only thing to do, the only way to turn back the tides and right the tilting machine, was to remove myself, to make the disintegration of expectations my own, my fault.


When K. and I first met, I’d never been in love, and, to be honest, I never thought I would be. Then he grabbed my chin and turned my head a half an inch to the right and suddenly the world made sense. The moment sounds dramatic, and it was, for me. The haze lifted under his gentle touch, the heat coming off his skin, toward me, evaporated the fog—everything shined.

With surety and confidence, I quickly eased myself into this life, shrugging off old visions of never finding anyone and embracing the certainty K. offered. I let my guard down and assembled an expected world that wasn’t at all fragile. I had found love, or, rather, love had found me. I felt chosen. I could see the next 50 years spread out before me, ups and downs smoothed by deep, everlasting love.


When the call came and K.’s dad shot a series of words from his mouth that hit my expected world in the sweet spot, dismantling my future life swiftly and with no sympathy, I was stunned. The pieces lay there jumbled, unrecognizable for the longest time. I don’t know where I am; I have no idea what to do. And, as Perrow pointed out, I discarded what didn’t fit; disbelief became my compass.

I continued to live my life as though K. had physically died while our love remained. I ignored all the signs that suggested I needed to get on with my life; I put the pieces back together again as they had been, dismissing the holes, pretending there wasn’t a cold wind whistling through. I had one chance; I had one life.

There was no realigning or reconfiguring outside of the fact that I now expected tragedy to strike. My own expectation became that I’d never be allowed to be happy again, a shadow always following me, darkening hope and tripping up growth, snatching everything dear to me—everything I love—while I stood there only mildly bewildered. Sorrow the foundation; distrust the building material.


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