"Living with a condition that, in Canada, we are able to classify as chronic and manageable is both a blessing and an ongoing challenge. Bringing about “slight or subtle adjustments” in thinking and doing, such as the ones I discuss, can be instructive and gratifying."
Last weekend, one of my two breakfast companions (I will call him David-the-first) was exasperated with himself.
He explained that for months during the past winter he had not been feeling well enough to go to the gym as had been his habit for several years prior. “I know I should be working out rather than sitting reading the newspaper or a novel,” he dismayed.
My other breakfast companion, who I will call David-the-second, joined me in looking at David-the-first with rapt attention and affection. He said, “I have an idea. Why not move a stationary bike into your home so you don’t have to brave winter during the depths of daylight darkness so that you can work up a sweat in the comfort of your own place?”
There was silence. I turned to mulling over what both my Davids, with whom I was enjoying a croissant, pain au chocolat, and espresso, had shared.
It occurred to me that David-the-second and I were listening to the same story, but conceiving of David-the-first’s concerns in radically different ways. Fascinatingly, the former had quickly acted on an impulse to solve the latter’s perceived predicament. With kindness, he had suggested an intervention.
I reclined in my chair and thought to myself, yes, but I wonder if cardio is really what lies at the heart of the matter. I was slightly amused because aware that conversationally, men can jump to rescue, ‘fix-it’, and problem-solve. Of course, we suppose that their hearts are in the right place.
In this case, I had the feeling that physical body conditioning was not actually David-the-first’s core concern. And so, I piped up. I motioned us to press a conversational ‘pause’ button. I urged us to consider the absence of any readily visible or immediately palpable intervention. With this overture, I was introducing the idea of an intervention in rather than on the self.
I was proposing that we take an inward and reflective turn. What if reading in the evening was accepted as a new activity to replace bodywork? What if we were to be patient with our bodies as they recover from or endure illness and aging? How come we prioritize one activity over the other, placing them in competition with each other?
What if we were to accept ourselves as we are in this moment rather than anticipating that things should be otherwise? How come we find ourselves thinking about one thing while doing another? And, what is actually at root when we think that we must do more than one thing at once? What about if we imagine that we are just fine as we are, and that slight adjustment, rather than radical overhaul, is desirable?
Between sips of coffee and bites of bread, I began to disturb the notion and voice a perspective against the de facto need to act and begin a campaign of change on ourselves because of a perceived problem or deficiency. What about if we are to accept that we are just fine?
This idea involves rejecting the impulse to immediately jump into the pragmatics of ‘doing’ or problem solving. What about pausing right then and there, here and now, to reflect on how come we want to read rather than exercise at a particular moment. What opens when we do this is the opportunity to pause; to contemplate underlying issues and emotions. The catch, and there is a catch, is this: to materialize this, we need to be still long enough to reflect.
It is not easy to bring about the slight adjustments to which I am referring. What might subtle changes look like in daily practice, you wonder? In my experience, this has meant first deliberately paying attention to things I regularly and recurrently think about.
For example, where I have written down my thoughts over, say, a month’s time, remarkably, I have picked up on patterns and specific repetitions. These I understand to be my key concerns. With time, I have been able to feel and identify my thoughts as they emerge. When this happens, I either encourage or banish them; deciding whether to think them through then and there, or defer.
These adjustments, that I refer to above as “slight”, involve a tremendous amount of awareness work, I must confess. Through them, though, I have felt wonderful and not-so-slight consequences. These include showing more compassion toward self and others, and feeling more calm as I navigate the day.
The impulse to intervene on oneself displaces the opportunity, and it is an opportunity, to reflect, analytically, on the features of what underlies the impulse to intervene.
"... I have carefully pondered the implications of using the word “should”. This word is useful if we are interested in reproaching ourselves."
A second slight or subtle change that I have integrated into my bountiful bag of tricks also involves deliberation as above, but with respect to language and what comes out of my mouth. Specifically, this means using certain words and not others.
For example, I have carefully pondered the implications of using the word “should”. This word is useful if we are interested in reproaching ourselves.
“I should exercise rather than read in the evening.” We might ask, How come this pair of activities has to be ranked and juxtaposed? If we are interested in both, as David-the-first is, we might usefully inquire into ways to create an opportunity to carry out both in a way that is satisfying.
Using the word “should” positions me/us to disappoint others or ourselves.
“I should clean the whole apartment today.” How would things turn out if I/we more modestly committed to a single room rather than an entire home? And, flipping the language coin on its head: what are associated consequences of using the word “could”?
Within this word lies the unknown, variety and choice. “I could exercise or read in the evening,” David-the-first might say. In using could rather than should, I/we allow ourselves to be open to and explore possibilities. This is an act of curiosity and open-endedness. In making this recent turn in how I use language, I have shifted my intentions, and made way for discovery.
A childhood friend recently honored me by coming to stay. As we gabbed, seated at the same table at which my Davids and I were to sit months later, she observed, “Wow! You are very harsh on yourself.”
I was taken back. Was I? Am I hard on myself? Am I harder on myself than other people are on themselves, I wondered? She advised, in no uncertain terms, that I explore the consequences of eradicating “should” from my vocabulary, as she had done. It was she who introduced me to the unintended, but real, implications of using should, as explored above.
And so, from our interaction forward, I have done just that. I began monitoring the effect of removing should from my talk. I worked to actively use “could” where I would previously have used “should”.
I must tell you that I am very happy with the results of my (blissfully) unscientific experiment. In doing this as a systematic practice, I consciously intend a certain way of thinking and speaking. Since I am aware of the promise with using “could”, as explained above, I am all too happy to stigmatize and disregard “should”. This is a healthy commitment to my wellbeing.
Living with a condition that, in Canada, we are able to classify as chronic and manageable is both a blessing and an ongoing challenge. Bringing about “slight or subtle adjustments” in thinking and doing, such as the ones I discuss, can be instructive and gratifying.
I am grateful for my childhood friend’s support and nudging, not to mention her wisdom. I am grateful, too, to my two Davids, for they provided me the opportunity to practice and share grains of learning.
At some level, you/me, as reader, might find what I have written familiar, even appealing. This is because at some level, you likely already know (or at least have insight into) the things I have put to paper here. I am curious to hear about others’ experiences and experiments shunning “should” and connecting with “could”.
If you happen to meet someone who, at all costs, circumvents the word “should”, you will know you are talking to me!