All I wanted was toothpaste!
Something to clean my family’s teeth and freshen our breath.
It should have been simple.
But at the local supermarket I was overwhelmed by the different sizes, shapes, colours and flavours; of the many varieties of toothpastes.
73! Yes! I counted them–much to the bemusement of the woman who was stacking the shelves.
Seventy- three different toothpastes to choose from, each with a perfectly valid reason why I should purchase that particular variety:
‘a whiteness you can see’,‘ice sensation’, ‘extra bright’, ‘stages for children’, ‘herbal’, ‘no added sugar’.
I am sure that advertising agencies play on the minds of shoppers by creating a special compartment in our heads: the ‘should’ depot.
Should I worry about too much fluoride, or too much artificial sweetener? Was it accidental that the denture tablets were at eye level, reminding me why I should buy certain brands of toothpaste?
Whether or not I was worried before I made my purchase, the ‘shoulds’ certainly got to me by the time I nervously passed my chosen variety to the checkout operator:
Would she notice my smile?
Did my breath smell like last night’s lasagne?
Should I have gone for the herbal blend?
Quite frankly, I’d like to ban the word ‘should’.
If I listen to my head on days when I am particularly overwhelmed by life, there are a multitude of ‘shoulds’ that flood in and swamp me:
I should get up this morning and go for a walk. I should not eat that last piece of chocolate cake, but I shouldn’t let it go to waste. I should get outside and do the weeding. I should be more diligent with composting and recycling. I should use a timer for the shower. I should be a better parent.
I should …
I’m not sure when it crept into our vocabulary so prolifically, but I think ‘should’ has become one of Satan’s sneaky but effective ways of creating false guilt and unnecessary anxiety in us.
After all, what am I really saying when I say ‘I should …’?
Am I saying, I feel guilty because there is so much to be done?
Or am I imposing guilt on others, because, even if I didn’t do something, if I thought I should have, I have gone one better than someone who had not even thought they should have?
If I take on the guilt for what I should have done, does that absolve me?
There almost seems to be a hierarchy of holinesses associated with ‘shoulds’. If Monty Python were to perform a skit about ‘should’, I imagine it would go something like:
Guilty Person (GP) 1: ‘I should have taken a meal around to the family who was struggling.’
Guilty Person (GP) 2: ‘You think that’s bad! I should have spent time with the person with cancer and I should have given to the charity, whose blind representative was at the door of the supermarket.’
GP 1: ‘Luxury! I should have offered to babysit for the family with 23 children, served at the local soup kitchen eight days a week, mown the lawn for all the elderly folk down the street, assisted the frail woman across the road, hemmed all the trousers in the local Goodwill …’
GP 2: ‘And if we told the younger generation of today what we should have done, they’d never believe us!’
‘Should’ does not motivate us, encourage us or equip us. It confuses us, tempts us and lessens our effectiveness.
‘Should’ uses energy we don’t have in order to worry about things we probably won’t do anyway.
We spend more time worrying about what we think we ‘should’ be doing than on doing what really needs to be done, what we are capable of, or what there is actually to be done after all.
What would happen if we used the energy we waste on ‘shoulds’, for the ‘Coulds’ and ‘Let’s’ and ‘Why don’t we?’
Just thinking about the possibilities makes me smile.
It opens up a rainbow of opportunities: our minds to the creativity that freedom brings; our hearts to the warmth of really understanding what we were created to do; our hands to the doing; and our voices to singing God’s praises so that everything we do or think about actually glorifies God.
Imagine a world in which we replace worry about what we ‘should’ do with a prayer to the creator of our days, followed by a desire to do his will.
Imagine a world in which we leave the ‘shoulds’ of today’s society behind us and take up ‘We can!’ as our catch-cry.
The late missionary and author Elisabeth Elliot once included the following words in her radio program Gateway to Joy: ‘I have only one thing to do today. That is God’s will, and he will enable me to do it!’
Life might look less depressing and more achievable if, instead of being ‘burdened again by the yoke of slavery’ (Gal 5:1) of the ‘shoulds’, we replaced ‘should’ with ‘can’.
If we are parents, we ‘can’ get on with cleaning up after the 19th spill for the day, and play with our kids once it’s done.
Or we ‘can’ sit and listen to our teens as they tell us about their horrible day.
If we are students, we ‘can’ study diligently to equip ourselves with the knowledge we will need to apply later.
If we are employees, we ‘can’ work conscientiously for our employer.
If we are employers, we ‘can’ assign tasks fairly and reward appropriately for effort.
If we are leaders, we ‘can’ serve those we lead.
If we are senior citizens, we ‘can’ share our lives with those who don’t yet have our experience.
Let’s spend our energy on what we ‘can’ do.
No ‘shoulds’ about it!
Originally published as:
‘Canning the Shoulds’, in The Lutheran, October edition, 2008.