The Way of Awesome

Awesome! Oh wow! Like, totally freak me out!

Shoulds

We all have shoulds that we carry around, the things that we feel we should make a part of our lives, but we haven’t. I don’t mean things that are on your to-do list, I mean the stuff that makes up what kind of life you’re leading, like:

I should maintain a healthier weight.

I should read more.

I should write more.

I should exercise every day.

I should go to church on Sunday.

I should get involved in charity.

These shoulds happen where a lack of action collides with your value system. Usually, what we do with these shoulds is bury them under reasons why we’re not doing them, reasons like “I don’t have time” or “I have too much emotional baggage” or “It’s too hard.” Some of those reasons have a lot of real weight, and some of them are excuses.

The angst that arises around shoulds makes action more difficult, unless you’re the kind of person who is truly motivated by anxiety and guilt. I am not motivated by those things; I tend to let them push me down into a whole world of self-directed anger and loathing, which makes it even harder to take action (because what’s the point, if you’re so awful?). My motivations are myriad, and the ones that work best are the most positive. I suspect a lot of other people are like me.

We often waffle about our shoulds. We waffle about the necessity of getting more exercise (“I always park far away from the store, that’s plenty of exercise!”), we waffle about whether we really ought to read more (“I won’t learn anything, anyway”), we waffle about all the other things we think we ought to be doing. We waffle and minimize to deal with the angst surrounding shoulds—if we convince ourselves that our shoulds are not that pressing or that important, then we needn’t feel so guilty for not doing them. In doing this, we lie to ourselves. We wouldn’t keep coming back to our shoulds if we really thought that they weren’t important, or that we were taking care of them sufficiently.

To be happier, and to get closer to making our shoulds into stuff we do, we need to stop lying to ourselves and let go of the angst. In order to move towards action, we need to live in the gray area between knowing what action needs to be taken and taking that action, and we need to live there with clear eyes so we can see the next step.

The first thing that has to happen to get to that place is to make sure your shoulds are really shoulds. Sometimes we think that we ought to be doing something for reasons we haven’t thought out. If you take some time to sit down and ask yourself “do I really want to lose some weight?” or “do I genuinely think that charity is something that I need to do?” you might find that the answer isn’t that straightforward. Maybe you’ll do a little research and find out what the impact of being overweight is for you and how much it matters, or read about how charity affects the world, or maybe you’ll do some reflection about your reasons for feeling like you shouldn’t eat meat or ought to spend more time dancing. In the end, you’ll have a more solid idea about why that’s been a should for you, and you’ll know whether it’s going to continue to be a should. This is, by the way, all about what you think is right, and not about some kind of absolute necessity or truth in the world. It’s about your world view and values and nothing more or less, and how you get to your own set of values and view of the world is your business and not mine[1].

Once you know something is really a should for you, take some time to sit with that knowledge. You don’t have to act; just know that, for you, it’s true that you believe you ought to be doing x, y, or z. Know also that you can stop there, with the acceptance of that knowledge, and understand that you don’t have to act. Understand that there are a thousand things that you could probably convince yourself that you should do, and a million more things that other people think you ought to do. Understand that this is just about your priorities right now, and might have nothing to do with your priorities in ten years. Understand that your life is pretty short. Understand that you already do a lot of things that other people have as shoulds, and that someone, somewhere is less fortunate than you in that way–some people have to talk themselves into getting out of bed and brushing their teeth and bathing, and those are their shoulds. Understand that some of your shoulds are things that other people do like breathing, but that the shoulds of those people might be things you do just as easily. Understand that your shoulds are influenced by the culture around you and the time you live in, whether you feel like it or not. Understand that change is a process, and some of the things you do now are things that were shoulds years ago.

Put your striving into context, and then take the next step.


[1]As an example, my own worldview insists that health and long life is vital, and that I have some kind of “meaning” in life. What that meaning is is up for debate, and I do debate it, but the necessity is there—and if I am too long without a purpose, I start to go a little crazy.

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