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The S-word, the F-word, the B-word, and the C-word

No, it’s likely not what you are thinking. But maybe I’ve gotten your attention.

I barely ever cursed when I was young, perhaps largely because my parents never cursed in my presence during my childhood. In fact it’s quite possible my mother has never uttered a curse word in her life. However, some way or other I acquired knowledge of raw language, because the diaries I kept in my early teens are full of it. One memorable entry from eighth grade features two facing pages containing nothing but repeated strings of curse words (with different grammatical forms for variety). It’s not clear from the surrounding diary entries what prompted this extreme reaction, but bile built up somehow, and I had to let it out. In my normal everyday life, though, I avoided using those words. I guess they didn’t jibe with my generally positive outlook.

I have an entirely different set of “curse” words now – words that I try to avoid using, words that drain my energy, words that I find toxic. They are:

The S-word: SHOULD. I have spent most of my life in daily contact with the word “should.” Pretty much any given day, all day long, sentences with “should” in them roll through my mind. “I should pick up that piece of paper from the floor.” “I should finish raking the leaves before the snow falls on the leaf piles and we end up with dead grass circles all over the yard.” “I should exercise more often/earlier/more effectively.” “I should schedule a dentist appointment.” “I should eat spinach every day.” I should stop listing “should” sentences, because I swear to you that I could continue indefinitely.

Every “should” is like a red arrow pointing to the gap between expectation and reality, that place where I continue to be convinced all misery lies. If I “should” do something, that means I’m living in the gap, expecting to do the thing I should do, but in reality not yet having done it. And although in my younger days a “should” would often propel me forward, now it has the opposite effect, putting the brakes on me because it makes me feel incompetent and unaccomplished. If I should do something but haven’t, I tend to perceive myself as failing rather than as a person moving on a path toward a goal.

Have you ever heard the expression “shoulding all over yourself?” The insightful article linked here uses this expression to illustrate the damage that “should” can do. It recommends a shift over to “want” – to thinking of why you might want to do something, and how it might benefit you, rather than focusing on an obligation to do it.

The F-word: FAIR. My mother told me over and over throughout my childhood: “Life is not fair.” It went in one ear and out the other for many years. At some point it began to stick – probably when I got to the age when friends and family members began experiencing adversity that seemed ridiculously unfair. Then I had children and pretty much as soon as they could speak they started in with “It’s not FAIR!!!” I began repeating my mother’s litany to them: Life is not fair. And I started thinking of “fair” as my “f-word” because of how the concept led my children to be dissatisfied with every situation that didn’t match up exactly with what another child had experienced or received.

Here we are in that gap between expectation and reality again: If we see something as unfair, we expect something that in reality we are not getting. And in the gap, whatever we do in fact have seems inadequate, even if it has value.

Is it unfair that I was diagnosed with cancer? I think so. But living in the land of the F-word doesn’t help me cope with adversity, it only leads me toward inertia and away from the value of what I can do about my situation. Think for a moment about something you consider unfair that has happened to you. What happens when you focus on how unfair it is? What happens if you set that idea aside – does it help you focus on how to cope with what you are facing?

The B-word: BALANCE. This notion of balance is one of the bats that we use to beat ourselves up with, in tandem with the S-word. “I should balance my home life and work…I should find balance between social time and time to myself…I should be able to balance my moods…my bank account…my time…”

To me, balance is a point in a mathematical sense, with no mass or dimension, a place we pass through over and over, back and forth, in our constant shifting and changing. I don’t think we are capable of staying still on a point of balance indefinitely. The moments when I feel a sense of balance are so tremendously fleeting that if those were the only moments I associated with success, I’d feel like a failure 98% of the time. You can imagine how motivating and productive this would make me (not).

I feel more comfortable with the image of a path. I’m walking this path, always striving to improve myself, looking for places along the way that feel as right as possible, and continuing on past them in service to the constancy of change.

The C-word: CONTROL. So often, we think we have it, or should have it. I’m not sure we do or can. I think that this word drops us into the misery gap as well, as our expectation of control over situations is a far cry from the reality of our lack of control.

NPR’s Radiolab had a fascinating show which you can listen to here. In it, Malcolm Gladwell calls our idea of free will and control into question.

Losing my brother showed me what an illusion control can be. You can be, as he was, a person who had so many aspects of life under control – work, family, personal space, finances, friendships, future plans. And then one split second demonstrates that ultimately you have no control, and that the life you have carefully built can be taken from you completely against your will.

I find that I need to exercise control over the small things that I can, when I can manage it – what I eat, for example, or what I read, or with whom I spend my time. But in terms of the bigger picture, I have aligned myself more closely with the reality of randomness and lack of control. Lining my expectations up with what is real brings me whatever peace is possible.

I am curious about how these four words function in others’ lives. What effect do they have on you? Do you avoid them? Use them? Use them with caution? Do you have your own toxic words? We do have some control over the construction of our personal vocabulary banks. Take the time and effort to create and use your most functional collection of words. Even if it includes some of my toxic words, it will earn my respect if it serves you.

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