Lately, at the very hour that many of my friends and colleagues are preparing to retire, I’ve decided to take on a particularly arduous landscaping task in the backyard. It’s the kind of job most younger women might not decide to tackle, the kind that people with earth-moving equipment and strong backs have already refused. Needless to say, a lot of people tried to dissuade me.
And almost every objection to my plan started with the words, “You can’t do that.”
Some of those objections, of course, had merit. One person warned me that I’d waste good expensive loam if my idea fails and the river rises again to wash it all downstream. Point well enough taken. So I went out and found a friendly contractor looking for a spot to dump clean fill, free of charge. Now if my yard can’t withstand a flood, all I have lost is some free dirt. And gained lots of muscles in the process.
But most of the objections fell into a very different category. I could have easily responded to may well-meaning friends and family by reminding them that this plan of mine did not require their participation. As the poet Adrienne Rich said “Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you…”
But what makes us employ this game-stopping tactic anyway? I know why we tell ourselves we can’t do a thing: Excuses are an avoidance tactic. Often, when we tell ourselves that we can’t, we might be trying to avoid.
- A challenge of some sort,
- The chance our action might refute some long-cherished belief,
- The knowledge that we might not be correct,
- Fear of change…
But why do we tell others that they should abandon a plan, or that the work involved is not worth the effort?
If you work in public service, you might hear a lot of statements that begin with the phrase, “You can’t.” As much as I hate the thought, I sometimes find myself objecting to someone’s ideas or request or plan by starting out with the words, “you can’t.” Unfortunately, every time any of us does that, we’re showing our lack of problem solving skills.
Think about it. How often have we told ourselves not to even entertain an idea because of some seemingly sensible objection that we apply towards another? We say,
- She can’t sign up for Family Self-Sufficiency because she’s (too old, too ill to work, already makes too much money, too-you-name-it.)
- They’ll never join FSS if they think the goal is to get off public assistance. Besides, HUD rules state that we cannot direct how they spend their Escrow.
- She can’t buy a home because doesn’t make enough (-even if the bank has offered her a loan.)
- He will never amount to much because he’s (a functioning alcoholic, a single parent, a terrible neighbor, you-name-the-reason.)
Sometimes I wonder if, instead of putting other people in our shoes, we’d have happier outcomes if we instead put ourselves in theirs. Yes, that messy tenant with the noisy family would make poor neighbors on your street. But every town has a community of run-down homes with poorly maintained yards. And often those homes are owned, not rented.
In my own case, many of the people who told me not to buy a wheelbarrow and shovel were assuming I was too old and frail for heavy work. But most of these folks are my age, and spend a monthly fee at the gym for their strength-training. My exercise, at least, is free.
When we allow ourselves to believe the excuses, I fear we might be doing everyone around us a disservice. Because with every objection I heard towards my own plan, I also heard something deeply personal about the speaker. If we continue to stop making excuses and refuse to take charge, we end up with, well, a life unchanged.
Or a yard under water.