Life Lessons from AFC Ajax: Living With Societal Expectations

Read Part 1 here.

The more I thought about how Ajax expressed themselves on the pitch without fear, the more I got drawn into society’s own predicament at large. We, as a society, have always lived at the bottom of the ocean of expectations. It is an ocean of our own making, and our objective in our lives are all about just finding ways to get that Oxygen from above the ocean – but without actually rising above the water. Many have indeed tried to rise above the water. Some of them were crushed by the force of the ocean, and some were simply dragged down by their fellow humans just because the bottom dwellers could not stand being confronted with the possibility of a life beyond their complacency.

Expectations are what we are born into, grow up being fed, learn to live with, and ensure to pass it along to the next generation. This is a cycle that is as old as civilization itself. It is true of almost every person I have ever met or known in my life, and it is certainly true of my own life. I am 33 years old and vaguely remember that time when I thought I could do whatever the fuck I wanted to do. That attitude did not stem from rebellion, but from a healthy ignorance of societal expectations. I lived without fear of what I would become in the future because one, I simply didn’t care; and two, I thought I could be anyone I wanted to be! But that was an extremely short lived time though. The burden of being a ‘smart student’ in my childhood was that I HAD TO top my class, score more than 90% every time, and avoid all other forms of activities in order to achieve those objectives.

Eventually, after many years, I came to realize that those were not in fact my own objectives, but societal expectations that had trickled down through society’s different layers and eventually appeared as parental and peer pressures. But like everyone else, I just went along with it and made those my own ‘goals’ and ‘ambitions’. Over time, those ‘goals’ and ‘ambitions’ may have taken on different forms, but still continued to be manifestations of societal expectations at large. And so, ultimately, I became one among those bottom dwellers living under the ocean of expectations set by a society we did not get to choose.

It may appear that these goals or objectives are our own and come of our own free will and volition. But mostly it is just a manifestation of what society has defined as the broad expectations from all of us – depending on where we are born into (think race, economic status, caste, skin color, gender, etc). Even if we somehow live with the complete ignorance that these all are our own goals and objectives, the problem is that we still live with the associated expectations. And because, fundamentally, they are not our own, we will always pursue these ‘goals’ while living with the fear of having something to lose if we don’t achieve them.

And there you have it: FEAR. It is at the back of our minds to varying degrees depending on our circumstances. We do not live in a society where we are told “Do what you want”. We are in a society where we are at best told “Do what you want as long as it is within the general framework of what the society expects from someone in your position”. At worst, it is “This is what you are expected to do and this is what you are supposed to dream of.” I am now seeing the next generation being beaten down to submission by the same societal expectations that got me more than a decade ago. I also see the even younger ones – the truly free spirited ones – who are on the cusp of getting sucked into the ocean. Somehow, in all this, I feel that the age of that healthy ignorance seems to be getting lower and lower with each passing generation.

I am reminded of ‘The Logical Song’ by Supertramp:

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily
Oh joyfully, playfully watching me
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible
Logical, oh responsible, practical

And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable
Oh clinical, oh intellectual, cynical
…..
I said, watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical
Liberal, oh fanatical, criminal
Won’t you sign up your name, we’d like to feel you’re Acceptable
Respectable, oh presentable, a vegetable!

As the song says, I do believe that in the end, we become a vegetable. Maybe an acceptable, respectable and presentable vegetable – but a vegetable nonetheless. At the age of 33, I have been through enough institutions to have had my own interpretation of ‘freedom’ become narrower and narrower. So much so, that even if I were to simply decide that I would break free of these shackles and quit my job and do my own thing, I wouldn’t know what the fuck it is that I even WANT to do! Never mind the question of whether I have the resources or knowledge to accomplish it, I am unable to even figure out what it is that I truly want in the first place.

In fact why think that far ahead? Let us just look at this blog right here. What I write, how I write and when I write on this blog all inevitably are (at least in part) decided by what would be ‘acceptable’ or ‘popular’ by those who read it. Why don’t I just simply write whatever it is that I want to and not care about if it is ‘correct’, or who reads it or how people feel about it? Why am I currently thinking that people nowadays have the attention span of a goldfish, so this post would be read by more if it was split into two? Why do I even care about who reads my post? Why do I seek any form of validation at all?

The unfortunate answer to all these is that, like most others, I have been sufficiently institutionalized to seek society’s approval in whatever it is I do. And it is simply not easy to break away from that mindset. This is what living in fear of not meeting the expectations laid out by someone else can do to our lives.

I am reminded of a quote in a Daft Punk song “Giorgio by Moroder” where Giovanni Giorgio has this to say about making music:

Once you free your mind about the concept of harmony and of music being correct, you can do whatever you want. So nobody told me what to do, and there was no preconception of what to do.

Now imagine a world without societal expectations, where children are brought up to be what they want to be, where people truly pursue their passions, where people are not taught what to think, do or say, and where it doesn’t necessarily take the innocence of a 5 year old kid to come up with a question like “What Would Happen If There Were No Number 6?” (No seriously, why couldn’t I think of that question?). There would be no fear of not meeting expectations, no fear of missing out on something, and we could pursue our own goals just because we want to have fun.

Ajax may have knocked out my favorite team from the Champions League. But in doing so, it has also given me a life lesson on what it means to live without fear or expectations – societal or our own  – and what it means to pursue something just because we want to express ourselves and have fun.

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