The lollipop

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Chapter 25: The lollipop


The lollipop is a metaphor we use to explain the nature of expectations, attachment, and disappointment.1 We’ll illustrate it by comparing and contrasting three stories.

Claire’s Example: A Baseline

Claire has a lollipop. It’s about two hundred licks of tasty lollipop. So she’s standing around, licking on this lollipop, and eventually it’s gone. She’s eaten the whole lollipop, so now all she has left is a stick. She feels pretty happy; she enjoys lollipops, and she’s finished a good one. She feels content.

The next story starts the same way, but ends differently.


Claire’s Example: Dropped!

Claire has a lollipop, and she’s licking it. Her lollipop is about half gone when she sneezes and accidentally drops it into a sewer drain! Now she feels disappointed, angry, frustrated, and indignant. After all, she had a good hundred more licks to go on that thing! She feels unsettled and unhappy.

There’s one more story to go.


Claire’s Example: Bonus!

Claire doesn’t have a lollipop. She’s minding her own business when her friend Anna comes up to her. Anna has a lollipop and says, “Hey, I have this great lollipop! I know you love lollipops, so would you like to share it? Here, have half and then I’ll have the rest.”

Claire accepts, enjoys half of the lollipop, and then she returns the second half to Anna. Here, Claire feels better than content; she feels great! Bonus lollipop! What a good friend Anna is, to share her lollipop with Claire.

We have three stories here with three different outcomes, but what about these situations causes the results to vary so widely? In the “Bonus” story, Claire got less lollipop than she did in the “Baseline” story, yet she felt happier. In “Dropped”, she had the same amount of lollipop as in “Bonus”, yet she felt miserable! Let’s look at that again:

Story Objective Outcome Emotional Reaction
“Baseline” Claire ate the whole lollipop. She felt content.
“Dropped” Claire ate half of the lollipop. She felt very upset.
“Bonus” Claire ate half of the lollipop. She felt very happy!

The objective outcomes of the last two stories are exactly the same (Claire ate half of a lollipop) and yet she had radically different emotional reactions! What causes the difference? The answer is expectation and attachment. In the “Baseline” story, Claire expected to eat the whole lollipop, and her expectations were met. In “Dropped”, she expected to eat the whole lollipop, but that didn’t happen — she only got half. In the “Bonus” story, she also only got half of a lollipop, but since she had no expectations, anything was great!

We can now fill in the missing column of our table: expectations.

Story Expectations Objective Outcome Emotional Reaction
“Baseline” to eat a lollipop She ate a whole lollipop. Content.
“Dropped” to eat a lollipop She ate half a lollipop. Very upset.
“Bonus” none She ate half a lollipop. Very happy!

Now it becomes clear. Claire felt content when her expectations were met, she felt very upset when her expectations were violated, and she felt very happy when her expectations were exceeded.

Expectation is the assumption of the presence of something in the future. We begin to view what we expect as a thing we can have or get upset about not having. After all, it wasn’t the loss of the lollipop that caused Claire’s upset in “Dropped”, it was the loss of the expectation of the lollipop. After all, Claire “lost” half of a lollipop in the “Bonus” story (by giving it back) and she ended up the happiest!

However, expectations don’t explain everything. We could expect to do some onerous task, or something neutral and uninteresting, and the violation of that expectation wouldn’t trouble us at all. For example, if we expected traffic to be bad tomorrow, we wouldn’t be upset if we were wrong. In order to become upset over the loss of expectation, we must also be attached to the expectation; we must want our expectation to come true.

When we are attached to an expectation and that expectation is violated, something happens. In a fascinating kind of mental alchemy, expectation is transformed into upset.

Kyeli’s Story: Motivation and Money

When we moved into our last apartment, we paid a hefty security deposit. We lived there only eight months and did minimal damage to our apartment. We expected the return of our entire security deposit when we moved out. We were relying on the extra money to help pay our moving expenses.

When we moved out, the landlord informed us we’d only be getting back half of our deposit! I was furious! I expected the entire deposit and he stole the other half from me! I held on to the loss of my (money) lollipop. In this case, the loss of it motivated me to do something about it. I called and wrote letters to the complex. I fought their decision. Eventually, the outcome changed in my favor; I got the other half of my deposit returned to me. Holding on to my attachment, to my expectation of getting my entire deposit back, helped me because it motivated me to fight for what I expected, and I got it!

That’s not always the case, though. Recently, I miscalculated my spending money and wound up losing $50 I expected to have. I had plans for that money, and suddenly having $50 less than I expected upset me. I ranted and railed against the injustice of my bad math and I wound up in tears… but for all my ranting and raving, I couldn’t recover the lost money. I eventually chose to let go of my attachment to the $50 lollipop so I could continue my life without being continuously upset by the loss of the money I’d expected to have.

In this case, holding on to my attachment to that $50 would have only caused me grief. I’d lost it, and there was no getting it back, no matter how motivated I was. I did get some good out of it: I created a monthly spreadsheet with formulas to keep track of my spending so this sort of mistake won’t happen again.

In situations like these, our attachments and expectations get tangled up with motivation, desire, and the absence of what we’ve lost. We lose the lollipop, but we haven’t lost the desire for the lollipop. This disrupts our internal harmony, and in response, we will cling tightly to whatever we have left. Usually, what we have left is the absence of the lollipop, the fact of losing it. This absence becomes at least as important to us as what we lost in the first place.

This can spur action: if Claire’s lollipop were stolen instead of dropped, she might be motivated into taking the lollipop back (a useful action) but unfortunately, the feelings of loss and frustration can persist whether or not it is possible to correct the situation. When Claire dropped her lollipop into the sewer, there was nothing she could do about it, yet her upset feelings remained. In fact, the feelings tend to persist even if the situation is immediately corrected. If someone snatches your lollipop and you snatch it back right away, you won’t feel fine and contented. Despite the fact that the outcome is now exactly as it was before, you’re still likely to feel angry that someone tried to take your lollipop!

Despite all this anger, frustration, and attachment, you can choose another possible outcome. If you are aware that you are “holding onto a lollipop” and you find no reason to keep holding on, it is possible to let go of the absence of what you’ve lost.

When you feel resentment, bitterness, anger, or upset at the loss of something, you can ask yourself these questions:

  • “What is my lollipop in this situation?”
  • “Can I get it back, or am I holding onto this absence without purpose?”
  • “Is feeling upset serving me at all?”
  • “When I take away this absence that I’m focusing on, what does my situation look like?”
  • “What is the objective outcome?”
  • “Am I ready to let this go now?”

What you’ve lost doesn’t have to be tangible; spending time with someone, for instance, is a common lollipop. It doesn’t even have to be something you ever really had; you can feel upset about losing something you expected to have in the future.

Remember that the outcome of the “Dropped” story was the same as the outcome of the “Bonus” story: Claire ate half of a lollipop. In “Dropped,” she felt upset, disappointed, and angry. In “Bonus,” she felt happy. Since the objective outcomes are the same, there’s nothing but her attitude that keeps her from choosing to be in the “Bonus” story instead of in the “Dropped” story. All she needs to do is let go.

Pace’s Story: Missed Connection

I booked a flight to Origins, a gaming convention that I had enjoyed attending for the three years previous. On Friday, I got ready to leave, but then realized to my horror that my flight was booked for Thursday, not Friday! I called the airline but they said there was nothing they could do. I could get a partial refund but I couldn’t get to Origins that weekend without spending a ridiculous amount of money.

I was incredibly disappointed! I felt angry at myself, angry at the airline, and bitterly envious of all my friends who were enjoying themselves at the convention. I had planned to split the cost of a room with one of my friends and I felt really bad for letting him down. The fun weekend I’d hoped for had turned into a fiasco of disappointment.

But then, after a couple of hours of feeling bad, I remembered the story of the lollipop. I imagined another story, a story in which I chose to take some time off work to spend with friends and family, and have a nice long weekend. I chose to be in that story instead. I let go of my absence-of-Origins lollipop, and you know what? I had a lovely weekend!

It’s okay to choose to hang on to your absence-of-lollipop. Expectations and attachments are part of being human, and part of being connected to the world around us. However, isn’t it nice to have the option to let go? By choosing a different story to be in, we create the possibility of happiness where before there was sadness, and we give ourselves a chance to better understand our own situations and motivations.

That’s even better than a lollipop.

1. We adapted the lollipop story from the book Ancient Wisdom, New Spirit by Peter Ralston.

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