should /shood/

verb.  1) used to indicate obligation, duty or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.  (Google result for searching “should definition”; accessed at the time of writing).

I despise the word “should”.  It’s bullshit.  Ok, maybe that’s not fair.  It’s just a word.  But it’s the concept that I despise, and it is everywhere.  The most appropriate response when someone tells you what you should do (pre-decision or action) or that you shouldn’t have done something (post-decision or action) is: “Fuck you.”

“Should” works on layers of hidden insinuation. When anyone uses the word “should”, two things are happening: 1) they are elevating themselves above you, and 2) they are thinking more about themselves than about you. And if you countenance it, you will have no one to blame but yourself for what will follow.

“Should” may be convenient shorthand when teaching a 5-year old to look both ways before crossing the street, but it’s application becomes less appropriate the longer into life it is used. “Should”, by implicating an “obligation, duty or correctness”, insinuates that the speaker knows something about you or about life that you don’t. After all, if you already knew what was right, why would you need to be told or reminded of it?

Of course, in the scenario where you want to learn some new knowledge or a new skill, seeking a teacher who shows you how to correctly achieve what you want is clearly a wise direction. But what about life questions: With whom should I become friends? Should I go to that party? What should I read, watch, or do tonight? What should I study at university? Where should I work? Should I go for that big promotion? Where should I live? Whom should I date? Marry? When should I have kids? How should I raise them? From where should I seek my happiness? What should I believe? How should I vote? Or most fundamentally – who am I or who should I be? What are the right answers here? The interwebs (those of a world-wide interconnected nature, almost like a net) are replete with stories about overbearing parents making just these types of decisions for their children because the decisions are “too important” to allow a lesser being (such as an adult child) to attempt them. However, none of these questions are appropriately answered by anyone other than he who seeks the answer.

There are no “right” answers to these questions (if there were, by what standard would you be able to measure their rightness?). The answers to these questions are found in you – what you want, what you believe, what you value. Who knows these things? More importantly, who determines these things? Why would you believe that anyone other than you is better situated to know or determine these things? If you rely on someone other than you to answer these questions and things go sideways (as they inevitably will at some point), who will bear the consequences? Will they? They say that you really find out who your friends are when the shit hits the fan; this must be especially true when they’re the ones who counseled you to start throwing shit.

Moreover, whether or not anyone knows more than you or not is irrelevant because when they “should” you, they are not thinking about you – they are thinking about themselves. It may be direct manipulation; it may be direct or passive-aggressive controlling; it may simply be rote recitation of thoughtless, “safe”, trite advice. In any case, their focus is on their own narrow opinion– a case of “what I would do in your position”.

This neuters you, whether intended or not. It transforms your opportunity to approach a choice from an attitude of “what could be” to “what might happen”. It insinuates that you lack the knowledge or skills to make the “right” decision as discussed above. Ironically, those who see themselves as teachers are not teaching you how to live; those who see themselves as friends are not permitting you to live. Life requires the ability to deal with ambiguity, to deal with loss, to deal with fuck-ups and when someone is willing to rob you of that, carefully consider of what else they will rob you.

No one is more invested in the outcome than you. No one will reap the benefits or bear the pain of the outcome more so than you. As a result, no one is better suited to bear the responsibility for the decision than you.

Reject “should”. There is no “should”. There is no mysterious duty or obligation or right answer in response to many of life’s questions. What life gives you is choice and consequence.  Instead of asking, “What should I do?” or “What’s best for me?” ask, “What do I want? What do I think? What do I feel? What do I value? What are the implications of choosing various options?” and make a choice.  If you’re wrong, if you don’t like the consequences of your choice, so be it. Deal with it. Life will go on. Make another, different, choice. Sometimes, you have to follow what you want, even though it is “wrong” by some measures, in order to learn what it is right. 

“Should” implies some great offence if you go against the grain, if you make a mistake, if you try to do something in your own way.  But that’s the thing – the price of failure is always limited. Failure is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to try again and to find your own way.  There is nothing – NOTHING, from which recovery is impossible (well, that’s not true – I suppose suicide pretty much kills your chances).

Should-ers would not have you believe that; they instead implicitly say, “you can’t do it, you can’t figure it out, and you never will; if you try you’ll just fail and ruin your life; better rely on me.” Ever heard of eternal damnation as the price for breaking tradition?  Ever been threatened that your decision to go against a parent’s wishes will destroy the family? I have. Don’t believe it. It’s bullshit.

To paraphrase a friend of mine, what other people think of you is none of your business. Certainly other people can offer their experience, their thoughts and their wisdom, if that’s what you seek, but ultimately, they will not have to live with the consequences of your choices. You will. So don’t defer to them. It’s your life. Live it.

P.S. To those who genuinely wish for the best but fear missteps or who thoughtlessly deal in “should”, consider providing relevant advice or experience, but rather than telling WHAT the right decision is, show the process of HOW to make a good decision. Allow the person the dignity of struggling. Allow them to own it. Trust that they can figure it out even if they meander into forbidden paths. They will not be lost so long as they have someone waiting and watching for them if and when they choose to return. There are fathers such as these, who set their children free and who will see their children return while they are yet afar off.

P.P.S. To those who maliciously castrate their “loved” ones with “should”: go to hell.


6 thoughts on “Should

  1. You raise valid points. Ultimately we are responsible for our own decisions.

    It can be irritating when someone tells you that you should do something, but I don’t think it’s always maliciously meant. No one likes unsolicited advice. Yet thinking about it now, I can think of several times where if someone had come forward with “you should” I would have been saved pains or difficulties. Would I have listened? That’s something to ponder.

    • Another thing to ponder – maybe you would have been saved pains or difficulties, but is that a thing to want? I have made lots of mistakes in my life, but I am who I am today because of those mistakes (among other things). Would I have been “better” had I not made those mistakes? Who knows, but I embrace the mistakes that were clearly of my choosing; my biggest regrets are the mistakes I made that were someone else’s choosing (i.e., because I was too weak to ignore their mistaken “should”). I have a follow-up post slated for Thursday that explores this a little more, and a further follow-up roaming in my head for some future post. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  2. What an answer! Now you’ve really got me thinking! You are right — all our experiences bring us to the point that we are at in any given moment. Do all our experiences come from our own choices? Would we have made the choices we made without outside intervention? It’s a gamble, but the more facts you have in your possession, the more informed your choice becomes and less of a gamble. You’ve definitely given me a lot to think about today.

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