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I was an opinionated kid. I think I had a pretty rigid sense of how things needed to be. My dad often prompted me to be less so – he’d tell me: “Don’t say should”.
Everything was should with me. We should go here, you should do this, I should do that.
Annoyingly, looking back, my dad was right.
The difference between “should”, “can’t” and “might”
Here’s the thing about should: it imposes its will. Should comes with an explicit sense of how the world should be.
When you tell yourself you should be using your free time productively, any time spent unproductively is a failure (or at least a disappointment).
Saying someone should approach a problem in a particular way means endorsing a specific, most correct course of action.
I should do this, I should do that – it all sets a standard or ideal that I’m not living up to.
Can’t takes things in a different direction. Can’t gives up power.
If there’s something you want to do but you tell yourself you can’t, for whatever reason, you risk sacrificing your autonomy and power.
Self-responsibility is one of the key parts of self-esteem and, according to psychoanalyst Nathaniel Branden, that involves people taking “responsibility for [their] actions and the attainment of [their] goals.” Can’t works against that by outsourcing responsibility to other people.
There will be situations where someone, realistically, should do something or can’t do something. But both need to be used judiciously. You might have goals that you can’t pursue right now because of other obligations.
That’s fair. But it doesn’t mean you should be able to do them or that you can’t do them now – you can do them later (or with some reprioritisation).
The difference is subtle but important. Are you using language that acknowledges responsibility and agency? Or are you using words that move it elsewhere?
Compare should and can’t to words like can, could, and might. They’re all more open-ended; they all invite possibility. “You should do something” is imposing; “you could do this” acknowledges that, hey, whoever you’re talking to has a choice.
Which one would you rather hear?
The difference between having and being
Here’s another example of language shaping your world: do live your life with a “having” or “being” mindset?
How about a practical example to illustrate. What feels more natural: “I have a wife” or “I am a husband”? Each phrase implies a different relationship along with different obligations and responsibilities. It’s also why, personally, I use “my partner” to describe my relationship much more than “my wife”.
To me (and, crucially, to my wife as well) partner implies collaboration, a shared vision, and mutual obligations. “I have a wife” doesn’t quite hit the same.
Psychologist and sociologist Erich Fromm talks about the difference between “having” and “being” in his thoughtful book To have or to be?
According to Fromm, the having way of living objectifies everything (even if you don’t necessarily realise it). Your goal becomes collecting – everything from status signifiers to opinions to people. You cling to things as marks of your identity.
In a being mode, however, real and authentic relationships come to the fore. You look to embrace people and moments as they come – that’s how you express yourself, after all.
It’s the difference between wanting friends and wanting to be a friend. The former looks for friendship to fulfil your needs. The latter is about enriching the lives of someone else.
If you think about life through the lens of “want” you’ll never stop chasing. If you focus on being, however, things get a bit easier. You can stop and focus on the now.
The limits of language
Look, I’m about to unwind everything I’ve said so far. It’s important, though, so stick with me.
Language is an inherently flawed way to describe the world. It can never accurate capture things as they are. Everything I said above depends on a certain definition of things like “should” and “want” that, for whatever reason, might not jive with your use of them.
Like I said, stick with me.
The Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna was a vital part of the evolution of Buddhist thought overall and to Zen in particular. His work on the limitations of language were particularly influential.
T. P. Kasulis spends a chapter in his fantastic book Zen action/zen person explaining Nāgārjuna‘s philosophies. Nāgārjuna, according to Kasulis, argued that “linguistic distinctions do not necessarily refer to units of nonlinguistic reality… Words are dependent on other words; concepts on other concepts.”
Kasulis goes onto say that “since language can never leave its own constructs and internal rules, it cannot serve as a vehicle for philosophical truth.” Basically, language is useful in the day to day but they can’t help you get to the truth of your life.
Part of the problem, according to Nāgārjuna, is that language forces us to make misleading distinctions between things. Kasulis illustrates this limitation using the phrase “cause precedes effect.”
It seems innocuous on the surface but, digging into it, you run into problems. To define a cause, you rely on explaining its opposite – the effect. If you’re watching something unfold, you can’t say something was a cause until you’ve decided that something else was an effect.
All that said, cause often precedes effect. Nāgārjuna‘s overall argument, according to Kasulis, is that “our conceptual analysis of a situation is not a straightforward reflection of the way the situation is directly experienced.”
To use a more concrete example, we say that an acorn grows into an oak. The two are, fundamentally, indivisible. You can’t have one without the other. But, linguistically, we’ve separated them. “In other words,” says Kasulis, “we take what had been one and divide it in two.”
Kasulis goes on to say:
Of course, there is nothing inappropriate about using the distinction between cause and effect in everyday life. Such distinctions are rough approximations useful in ordinary communication. The gap between such concepts and their referents is not so great that language is to be avoided entirely. Nāgārjuna‘s only claim is that since there is a gap, we can never reach reality through conceptual means alone.
Nāgārjuna‘s perspective leans heavily into relativity. Alan Watts, who helped popularise zen in the West, has argued that Nāgārjuna‘s standpoint wasn’t nihilism or total relativity. Instead:
The dialectic with which he demolishes every conception of reality is merely a device for breaking the vicious cycle of grasping, and the terminus of his philosophy is not the abject despair of nihilism but the natural and uncontrived bliss of liberation.
The goal isn’t to dispute reality – it’s to disrupt our idea of reality.
Speak your life
If you live your life through “should”, you might find yourself chasing an ideal you aren’t aware of (or constantly disappointed that other people don’t reach it). If everything’s about having, you might not understand why you’re never satisfied.
It’s worth taking the time to think about how you talk about yourself, your life, your loved ones and your goals. I’m not saying you should think about it – just that you can. And it might be helpful.
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