I have had a complicated relationship with Should my whole life. It’s a story that, rather weirdly, involves punctuation
When I was young, I rebelled against Should. I think doing so is healthy and necessary to become an adult with a strong individual identity. I’m talking about Should with a question mark. “Should?” comes as we move from docile acceptance of authority when very young, to wanting to overthrow everything, before coming back to something more resembling a balance. “Should?” challenges. “Should?” shapes the adult we become.
As I matured I began to see Should differently. I began to understand what a privilege it is to have the life I have been granted. I have a base of security, comfort, and belonging, plus brains and abilities, that allow me to be effective in this world. Should with an exclamation point says that I don’t get to waste those gifts. If I can write well, I have an obligation to do so. If I can lead, I need to lead. If I can contribute, I need to contribute. Much given, much asked in return.
“Should!” guided my career. I wanted to use my gifts to make as much of a difference as I possibly could to the cause of educational equity, the guiding passion of every teaching and administrative position I held. Because I turned out to be good at each job, “Should!” guided me to jobs of increasing importance, to the extent that is measurable by responsibilities and pay raises.
“Should!” played a big role in my career as an author as well. I do love to write, and I don’t want this to sound as if I was dragged kicking and screaming into publishing five books in six years, but once it was clear that I could spin a good story that publishers wanted to buy and people wanted to read, “Should!” set in. People told me they wanted me to write another book because they wanted to read it. My agent wanted me to write another book because she wanted to sell it. There were so many forgotten women whose stories were crying out to be told.
Most of my adult life I have been guided by “Should!” I took on what was demanded of me, or that I demanded of myself, because I could. If I was good at something I felt obligated to do it, from career, to publishing, to volunteering, to running 10Ks or swimming laps.
“Should?” began poking its head back in my life more often as I moved into my sixties. I became less interested in self-reinventions others thought I should make. I didn’t want to learn how to do the latest, greatest thing, whether it was a new teaching strategy or learning how to work the bells and whistles on my phone. I wanted to keep growing, but I wanted to choose how. I guess you could say “Should!” was being countered more often with “Do I really need to?” and the latter was proving more persuasive.
I chose to return to teaching rather than pursuing administrative advancement, then eventually I walked away from that into retirement. I decided I didn’t owe anybody any more books. I didn’t owe unnamed future students my knowledge. I resigned from boards that weren’t providing me opportunities to feel I was growing in ways that mattered to me. I went into cruise lecturing with no sense of purpose other than to have fun sharing my knowledge and seeing the world.
Now in this age of Covid, I find myself in a new phase of my lifelong relationship with Should. In the past, when I was facing long stretches of unstructured time, I remained productive by establishing different categories of time and made myself spend at least an hour a day on each. It worked brilliantly as a self-imposed Should.
I blogged confidently about it here just a few weeks ago. In all honesty, it’s not working all that well now. I have my categories of time prominently displayed in my home, and I do use them as a reference point when I get antsy, but I just can’t make myself do anything I don’t feel like doing.
What’s so different? I think it’s because until this point I was projecting into the future, seeing all those Shoulds (and the “Do I Really Need To’s”) as leading somewhere. The goal might have been no more than a misty sense of well being in the future for having chosen a certain path, but that was enough.
Now I don’t know. I don’t know how to believe in the future the way I used to. Certainly not with a fervor that will drive me today to do a little research on a potential writing project, or get down on the floor and do crunches. Should’s punctuation is now a trail of dots.
Good things might lie ahead, influenced by my efforts now, if I have the good luck to survive in good health. That’s a big if. What would I do today, if I were pretty sure I would survive this? All I know is that the answer is different than if I were pretty sure I wouldn’t. The second, I should confess, involves at the very least far more ice cream and far fewer plank poses.
The background hum of Should is so different now, precisely because I don’t know which of those questions will be the one I should have listened to. But don’t get the idea I am despondent. Actually I am pretty content these days. Maybe letting go of Shoulds is a natural part of the aging process, launched forward on steroids by this pandemic. What seems clear now is that in this complicated, evolving new reality, when I can answer “Yes!” to the question “Do I Really Need To?” I can affirm life in this moment in ways I might not ever find while listening too much to Should.