Recently my wife and I were walking home from Newton Square up in Massachusetts. Up ahead I saw a woman and a boy who appeared to be around 8 or 9 years old. As I got closer, I noticed the boy had a pacifier in his mouth. When I got up close, the boy removed the pacifier and began to say “You might think it’s funny that I …” I interrupted him and said “You don’t owe me an explanation.” Then I looked at him and told him”Don’t ever let anybody tell you how to be. You just be the person you want to be, ok?” He simply said “Ok”. As I walked away, the woman I assume was his mother said “Not enough people tell him that.”
Years ago, I heard a story about my mother-in-law. Betty was an extraordinary woman. She had raised 13 children as she was recovering from addiction. Strong as steel but on the surface very passive. In any case, back in the 70s, a friend persuaded her to attend an encounter group. These encounter groups were supposed to be for “being honest”, “letting it all hang out” etc. As the group progressed, someone commented “Betty, that’s a lovely scarf.” Betty deflected the compliment, saying “Oh, it belongs to my daughter.” Well the group erupted, telling Betty things like “You should accept a compliment” or “You should be more assertive” and so on. This lecturing went on for some minutes. Finally, it died down at which point my sweet mother-in-law looked around the group, smiled and said “You know, ‘should’ is a shitty word.” Brought the group to a dead halt!
Should is indeed a shitty word. That little boy up in Newton obviously felt like he should not have a pacifier in his mouth and that he should have to explain this behavior. He reminded me of ways I and most people I know compromise ourselves, avoiding being real in some unusual way because we shouldn’t do that and what would people think?
I’m not saying we give ourselves license to say and do anything we want to. In this world, we hurt one another a lot as it is. But what I also know is that most of us are constantly “shoulding” on ourselves, repressing a moment of creative authenticity because we “shouldn’t”.
I remember another time my wife and I were out to dinner. Our waitress, who looked to be maybe 20, had a wonderful smile. As we were paying the bill, I said to her “You have a beautiful smile. Don’t let anyone take it away from you.” She thanked me. Did she think I was just some nutty old man? Maybe. But I’m glad I said it.
When one hears about spiritual and psychological journeys, one hears words and phrases like “authenticity” or “Be yourself”. That’s fine but, to pursue such a path, we risk being viewed as “odd”. (A compliment I treasure, by the way, came from a man who told me he had met another psychologist here in El Paso. Referring to this other psychologist, this man said “He said you were rather odd.” At the time, it bothered me. At this point, I treasure it.)
So to the little boy in Newton and to anyone with ears to hear, I say “This world of ours is drying up with mindless conformity and sameness. Unique and creative behavior gets diagnosed instead of embraced. Dare to be yourself, even if others might view you as odd. As Zorba the Greek said “Without madness, you never cut the rope and are free!”
Reflection: 1. How are you limited by shoulds? In what ways do you like being “odd”?