Last week, my wife had her 60th birthday.
So, naturally, I’ve been thinking about dying.
In the past few years, life has changed. My wife and I have buried three of our four parents, making me thoroughly cognizant of my own mortality and the fact that I will, someday, end. As a result, I’ve been reevaluating … everything … from relationships with friends and family to the mental gymnastics that, while I’ve been doing them my entire life, are merely bad habits left over from an insecure childhood.
I do a lot of things because I should, and it’s really starting to piss me off.
No … no one is telling me what I should do. It’s all me: me and five-plus decades of psychological conditioning. Growing up, yearning for love and approval in a perfectionist-run household, I became adept at figuring out what others wanted from me and set out to do that for them, no matter how difficult the goal. My psyche, forged in the fires of perfectionism and expectation, still retains the smith’s hammer-marks.
The lawn’s a bit shaggy; I should mow it. We have that pot luck on Saturday; I should figure out something spectacular and unusual to bring. I haven’t heard from so-n-so for a while; I should call him. This book won a Pulitzer; I should read it. It won a freaking Pulitzer; I should like it. I haven’t won a Pulitzer; I should write another book, a better book, a prize-winning book.
Should Should Should
Should is a fogbank that separates me from me. It cloaks the desires of others in the guise of my own, obscures my dreams, and makes my achievements invisible. Perfectionism drives me toward unattainable goals, because as soon as I stick that landing and put those 10s up on the board, the rulers shift, the dials go to 11, the expectations rise, and I’m once more playing second fiddle to my own ideals.
Add should to perfectionism and you get a death-spiral of recrimination and failure and despair.
This week, I began an experiment. Whenever my internal dialogue says I should do something, I ask myself if I want it to do it. Thus, I should mow the lawn becomes Do I want to mow the lawn? It’s surprising how often the answer to these questions is “No.”
Yes, I still do some things I don’t want to do, but only when I want the end result. For instance, I don’t want to go to work, but I do want the paycheck. But the lawn? It can wait another week. That phone call? He never calls me, so maybe I just won’t bother.
Replacing should with want frees me to dump the ridiculous goals of my upbringing and concentrate instead on my own. I want to be a good husband. I want to be a good man. I want to write another book. I want to have a long and healthy retirement. I want to die fulfilled, happy, and at peace with those around me … oh, and old. Very old. Very very old.
That’s what I want, and therefore that’s what I should.