A Secular Age (3): Exclusive Humanism
The Science Pope?


Frustration We all experience frustrations, when our expectations or plans are disrupted, interrupted or wholly thwarted. This causes anger to well up within us - indeed, frustration is a name for a particular kind of anger. The greater our expectations, the more frustrated we will become.

According to anger management expert John Lee, "Expectations are unrealized resentments waiting to happen." The more we have ideas about how things should be, the more likely we are to be frustrated when those expectations are not fulfilled. Thus we go through life with ideas in our heads about what should happen, how such-and-such should work, what the socially accepted thing should be in a particular situation and so on and so forth - all of which is setting ourselves up for greater and greater frustration.

In my life, my history of interacting with Microsoft productivity software is precisely encapsulated by this observation: they are such a source of frustration for me because I have expectations about how an Office suite should function (some of which have been acquired from working with Microsoft's Office suite in the past, which has prepared me with certain expectations that later versions often thwart). I am thus prone to frustration when dealing with these, an outcome which helps no-one and certainly not myself.

What can we do about our frustrations? I cannot offer a panacea, but I can say what helps me.

I am often struck by people who seem to suffer less frustration in life than I do; many of them manage to be placid in the face of what would be enraging for me, and with this seems to come a greater tendency to be delighted by the unexpectedly pleasant. It is as if, by having fewer expectations, by being less bound to the self-made rules of should, they free themselves from frustration and open themselves up to finding delight in the positives, rather than burning up in the friction of the negatives.

As someone who finds wisdom in all the great religious traditions, I see in such people an expression of the spirit of the Buddha, whose four noble truths say that existence is suffering, and the origin of that suffering is desire - or in the terms we are discussing today, expectations. In Buddhist practice, one eliminates the desires (the expectations) in order to eliminate the suffering, which is traditionally achieved through meditation and a reorientation of one's world away from the selfish drive of Me and towards an attitude of love towards the world. In this way, Buddhist teaching accords with the ministry of Jesus, which also teaches love as an antidote for suffering (sin, in Christian terminology, although many do not interpret the term in this manner).

My wife gave me a small wooden Buddha statue to keep on my desk; I try to focus on that when my work drives me into a rage compounded from myriad software frustrations. It is difficult, in the heat of the moment, but I still try, and if I fail I do not let myself feel defeated but rather I draw satisfaction from the times when I am able to quell my growing anger and becalm my tempestuous temper. It is perhaps harder for those who have no link to spirituality - someone who has "no invisible means of support" (to coin Fulton Sheen's memorable phrase) - to still their demons, but perhaps even the most grounded materialist can find the logic in silencing the demanding voice of should in their psyche, a voice which lures us into frustration.


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dj i/o here...

Several years ago, I too slowly came to this realization that less expectations = less frustration.. and I also noticed the parallel with Buddhism. I have tried to incorporate some of this philosophy into my life, although it has not happened overnight. I do believe I have made progress though... and it can be quantified by less arguments with my girlfriend, among other things.

A real joy in having fewer expectations: those that become easily enraged are truly fascinating.

This is a very interesting article . I was wandering the same thing and now I found your blog . Ty . This was really helpful .

I have never had very many desires that were not easily satisfied. I do have trouble sometimes curbing my expectations though. Perhaps I should read more about buddhism. Thanks for sparking my interest Chris :)

Haha, how interesting, Chris, you don't strike me as the kinda guy with a "tempestuous temper" :)

But yes this is excellent advice. Though sometimes quite a bit easier said than done. Not everyone can be a buddha :(

I also find that it helps sometimes to think about what caused the frustration. A lot of times if you really start to think about it you might realize it's not actually all that important after all.


I think your reasoning is sound in the abstract, but it may not help you all that much in practice. The typical trap here is that whenever you get frustrated because your expectations aren't met, on top of that you pile another expectation (how you'll react to the event), which you again fail to meet.

What has helped me overcome this kind of anger (most of the time) is rephrasing the problem in such a way that I can take responsibility for it. If you blame your tools, you're externalizing the source of the problem, claiming it's outside your power to change the situation. However, if you take responsibility for not being able to use your tools properly, or for using the wrong ones in the first place, that's something you can actually improve.

This little shift in perspective is what makes me see that getting frustrated is a huge waste of time and energy that doesn't actually change the situation at hand. Avoiding this drain entirely is the solution to the productivity problem at hand, more often than not.


dj i/o: TypePad ate your name again, didn't it? Don't know why your name is so tasty to it! :) Anyway, I restored it for you.

Any kind of personal growth doesn't happen overnight - it takes time and commitment. But the rewards are commensurate to the effort, in my opinion! :)

tfaas/Raduu: thanks for your brief comments! I appreciate it when people let me know they've enjoyed something I wrote.

Katherine: if you would like a point of introduction to Buddhist philosophy, Wu Wei Wu is quite accessible - but that doesn't mean he's easy to understand! ;)

Sirc: believe it or not, I really do fly off into blinding rages from time to time - although less often with each passing year, I'm pleased to report. It probably escapes notice when you view me solely from my writing, although it must surely be possible to sense the raw nerves in my earliest posts about Dawkins. These days, my ire has lessoned: I am thankful to him for re-opening the door for discussion of religion, even while I am disappointed in his conduct as a scientist.

As for thinking through the causes of frustration - the trouble with this, I find, is that in the white-hot grip of anger it can be hard to have a bearing on the origin, and when one gets free it can be hard to want to return one's attention to something that had been so upsetting.

I agree that there is value in this kind of self-assessment, though. I have written a full page diary for 24 years now, and it serves as a valuable place to unravel my thoughts - although it is often scary to revisit my past states! :)

Vitor: wise words indeed, here. I really like your approach of reframing issues in order that you can take responsibility - it is the stance of maturity to be able to do this. When we hide in childhood identities, nothing is our fault, there is always blame to be accorded elsewhere - only when we start to take personal responsibility for ourselves across the entire context of our lives do we truly move into adulthood.


Many thanks for the comments everyone!

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