Thursday, February 26, 2009

Oughts and Shoulds

When I taught English as a foreign language, my students would frequently get confused over the differences between could, would and should. That was probably not surprising given that they rhyme with each other and the shades of meaning can be very subtle. I would explain to them that would was conditional and expressed a desire to do something, if the conditions were or were not met. As in, "I would meet you for dinner, if I weren't broke." Could expressed capability or options, as in "you could do this or that." And that should was used to impose an obligation and frequently coupled that with a judgment if the obligation weren't met. "you should have finished your homework before going out with your friend." And ought was just should on steroids.

It is probably not surprising that I have a strong dislike for 'shoulds.' When someone says to me, "You should.....," the hair on the back of my neck stands up and I tense up in preparation for a fight. It doesn't always lead to a disagreement. Sometimes it is a kind of sideways compliment. "You should do X! You're so good at it." But, generally, I brace myself because I'm about to hear someone's unsolicited opinion on how I should live my life in a way more acceptable to the person making the pronouncement.

In my life, I've been told what I should or should not feel, should or should not think, whether I should be happy or sad, grateful or forgiving, and what I should or should not be or do. And a much younger me dutifully tried to live up to the obligations imposed from the outside, no matter how many contortions I had to put myself through in order to approximate the mold I was supposed to fit into.

As is my habit, whenever I have a strong reaction to something, I try to figure out why I feel the way I do about it and this is no different. I thought back to my history of resenting 'shoulds' and it stretched fairly far back. And in every case where I remember my hackles rising, it was a case of someone attempting to exercise control over who I am or what I wanted to do.

When we are children it is only reasonable that our parents exercise a certain amount of control over us, lest we act like little savages. Obviously, some parents overdo it and the result is usually resentment and rebellion, once we are old enough to do so. But much more insidious are the ways society as a whole, or smaller groups within society, seeks to control people and enlists everyone in exercising this control on others. This happens with small things and larger things almost without our realizing it. The most dreadful aspect is that we are complicit in enforcing that control on ourselves. These little tyrannies shape and control all aspects of our lives to the point that we frequently turn our backs on the lives we would much prefer to live.

Naturally, there are a few 'shoulds' that should be retained, but probably fewer than most people would think. All the usual proscriptions against violence and thievery should be retained simply because everyone should feel safe in their person and their homes. But I propose the addition of some 'shoulds' that enhance life rather than limit it.

Everyone should do things that make them happy. Whether that be "wasting" a Saturday afternoon on the couch reading, "lazily" hitchhiking across Europe, or "irresponsibly" chucking it all to follow a deeply held personal dream.

Everyone should avoid things that do not bring them life. Many years ago, during my last gig as a pianist, I was heartily complaining to someone about how much I hated it and didn't feel like I could quit. She quietly asked me, "Why do you do things that do not give you life?" I couldn't come up with any justification for it, so I dumped the job. Any activity that doesn't bring joy and animation to life, probably should be dropped. It might not lead to great riches, but it just might bring great peace.

Everyone should have some personal dream that they aspire to no matter what. Once we allow ourselves to be buried under the daily grind, we slowly disappear into that grind and lose sight of ourselves. And that cannot be a good thing in any way.

And everyone should reach for these things as long as we live. Sure, it might lead to what looks like destruction or chaos. Monetary security could be lost. Relationships could fade. Others might heap on criticism. All because we march to the tune of our own lives. But, at the end, it simply has to be better to have lived one's real life.

"One's real life is so often the life that one does not lead." -- Oscar Wilde.


Knitman said...

Oh yes! I hate ought and should too. Have you notice dhow in period drams, like of Jane Austen's work, should was used differently? For example ' I should like to accompany you ....' meaning they would like to.

stefficus said...