Congruent Joy

The Tyranny of “Should”

Here’s a simple question:

“What should I do?”

We’ve all had the universal experience as children of being told what we should do: “Eat your vegetables. Don’t clobber your playmate.”

Then, many of us went off the school, where there were more “shoulds”: “Go to school (even if you don’t want to). Pay attention to the teacher (even if they’re boring).”

Quite a few of us have had a job, with yet more “shoulds”: “Show up to work (even if there’s something else you’d rather do). Don’t tell your boss what you really think of them (even if you’d like to).”

And then… at some point… we reach a level of maturity, of personal power, of effectiveness… where we get to choose.

To choose what we’re going to do.

Without someone else telling us what to do.

And we have many choices.

There are many, many, many things that we could do.

More than we could ever possibly have time to do.

And so we have to choose. Even not making a choice, to do nothing, or to let someone else tell us what to do, is itself a choice.

The advantage of “should” is that it narrows choices. Of all the many things we could do, we figure out, or are told, which one we should do. Now we don’t need to make a choice.

It may be hard to do what we “should” do, to pay attention to the boring teacher when we’d rather be doing something interesting, but at least we know what to do. What we should be doing.

So, when we’re faced with an abundance of freedom, an abundance of choices, of having to choose between many more options than we could ever possibly have time to do them all… an attractive question may be to ask what we “should” do.

Because it narrows down the choices.

Yet it may not always be a useful question to ask.

If we don’t do what we “should” be doing… if we’re unable to accomplish something we “should” do … that’s a failure. We’re doing something wrong. We’re not doing what we should be doing.

And, when faced with a vast abundance of choices, of many, many things that we could do… quite a few could be described as things we “should” do: help others, help ourselves, do more.

But with the many, many things that we could do, asking “which of these ‘should’ I do”… can produce a list of many things that we “should” do… more, again, than we have time to do.

Rather than being helpful, asking the question can instead produce guilt and discouragement, because now we have many more things we “should” do than we can do.

Which is not to say not to ask the question if you do find it helpful. But also don’t be discouraged if you don’t find it helpful.

A different question to ask:

What do you most want to do?

This can be an alarming question because it may seem to be an invitation to selfishness.

Yet… what if you’ve reached a level of maturity where, for example, you’re already pretty happy with having your own wants and needs satisfied… and what you most want at this point is to help others.

If you ask a child what they want, you may get a less than ideal answer. “Eat candy!”

You’re not a child any more.

Is asking “What do you most want?” an invitation to addiction?

Not if you don’t want addiction.

And if, for example, perhaps what you might at the moment most want to do is help others… you still have a vast choice of options of how you might help others.

And you can ask again: “How do you most want to help others?”

Who do you most want to help? What kind of help, for you, is the kind of help you most want to give?

When facing trade-offs (and you’ll always have trade-offs)… you can ask, taking into consideration the reality of these trade-offs, which option do you want the most?

And if tomorrow you wake up and realize what you most want today is something for yourself, that’s OK. You’ve already done much for others, and will do so again.

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