I recently shared my views of the word “should”. Its close cousin is “s’pose’da” (supposed to). I often hear this used in the expression, “everything will happen as it’s supposed to” or “everything happens for a reason” or “that’s not how it’s supposed to be” or variations thereon. The context where these types of expressions are used is typically when faced with a difficult or ambiguous choice or scenario.
The reason the diction is interesting to me is that it attempts to shift responsibility entirely to some force outside of oneself. It betrays an underlying belief in fatalism and rejection of your responsibility for the consequences of your choices or of your responsibility for the situation you find yourself in. It fails to consider the complexity of the situation, but rather summarily dismisses the complexity as if it did not exist at all.
I understand the urge to simplify when you begin to feel overwhelmed. To be able to summarize a series of ambiguous or complex actions, choices or scenarios can be hugely relieving. But it cheapens human experience when, like with s’pose’da, the summary overshoots, and simplification veers to willful ignorance of reality or abdication of one’s will.
As a fairly simple example, I recently replaced the front door to my house. I had watched some videos online to ensure that what would be required would be within my carpentry skills, and I was fairly confident that I could do what was shown in the videos. However, my confidence waned slightly as I considered the actual dimensions and construction of my door and its framing.
Nevertheless, we went to the local home center and purchased a door. Upon returning home, we began to tear out the old door and ran into a snag – the construction of the exterior molding would necessitate far more removal of material than any of the videos we had reviewed anticipated. “This is going to be a big job,” I sighed to my wife, as I considered how many layers of material we were removing and how each would need to be replaced.
My fear of getting in over our heads was palpable, and I could have let myself become overwhelmed at the complexity of what needed to be done or even started to cast about for something to blame. At a certain point, we passed the point of no return – there was no way the old door could be salvaged, and if we wanted a door to our home that night, we would need to figure it out and no amount of “this wasn’t how it was supposed to go” would help. At that point, the point of no return, the fear vanished, replaced with determination. “Well, there’s nothing to do now but get it fixed,” I remarked to my wife. And so we did, step by step, layer by layer, until, a few hours later, the new door opened and closed beautifully.
People are remarkably adept at adjusting to their circumstances, no matter how difficult or ambiguous, once those circumstances are accepted, provided that they also embrace the opportunity and responsibility to change those circumstances. Conversely, humans function remarkably poorly when that responsibility is viewed as a burden unfairly placed on them by life or God or fate. But this is what many do. For some reason, it seems easier for many to abdicate responsibility for choices and/or their outcome into the ether, like blowing on a dandelion and letting the wind take the seeds where they’re “supposed to” go.
However, the blowing wind does not rend the responsibility for our choices from the responsibility for the consequences of our choices. Yes, the wind may blow the seeds of our choices to fertile valleys or to barren deserts, but consequences sprout from those choices and from nowhere else. S’pose’da obfuscates this view of reality. It reinforces a belief that you are weak or incapable – that you can’t deal with difficult situations, whether brought about by your own poor choices or not, that you are merely a victim of an (clearly callous) external force. What must necessarily follow from this belief is that if you are not responsible for the consequences of your choices or situation, then there’s no ability to make new, better choices or to improve your situation. You are trapped by the whims of fate. There’s no point in learning, no potential for growth, so you remain like a rat in an electrified maze, unable to change and cowering in fear awaiting the next shock.
If, however, you accept responsibility for the consequences of your choices, including that of a situation not entirely of your own making, you always retain the power and ability and confidence to make new, perhaps better, choices. Like my door, if you break it, you can fix it; if someone else breaks it, you can fix it. We are responsible for our choices because we and we alone will bear the full brunt of the consequences of our choices. We are responsible for our situations because we and we alone must live in the situation we find ourselves in and in which we choose to remain.
This is not some motivational speech either. Princes obviously have a different set of choices than paupers. You can’t just positive-think your way from poverty to riches, from paraplegic to marathoner, from Nazi death camp prisoner to free man. If your situation is truly such that it cannot be changed, your array of choices to influence the external world may be incredibly narrow, and that sucks. But regardless of your situation, options exist, and you have the opportunity and responsibility to choose among whatever limited set of options you may be given. No matter your situation, you still choose how you treat the people you come in contact with, what you think about, what you love.
A final note – this post does not remotely address the issue of a person’s responsibility to another or the appropriate manner of relating to “the unfortunate”. As a result, it is not intended as a speech a rich person reads to a poor one with the “advice” to “lift yourself up by your bootstraps, you lazy bum”. It is solely a discussion of a person’s relationship to herself – the idea that personal responsibility leads to personal freedom, within the confines of each person’s unique sphere of possibility.
Title from an episode of the Simpsons.