Thursday, February 26, 2009

In Defense of "Can't"

This is America. We are, so we’re told, a nation of doers, not doubters. If there’s one four-letter word we will not abide, it’s the word “Can’t”. Far worse than the dreaded F-bomb, this word signifies disgrace under pressure, wimpiness, wussiness, loserhood. It’s a word that’s only uttered by naysayers, nonbelievers and other nattering nabobs of negativism. “Can’t” means cut-and-run. “Can’t” means you obviously aren’t serious about success. Better to bullshit your way to inevitable failure than to admit that something might be beyond the scope of your abilities.

How this childish attitude toward life got to be so prevalent, I’m not certain. Maybe it’s that story we all had read to us as kids called The Little Engine That Could. In case you missed it, a small switch locomotive is confronted with the task of scaling an extremely steep hill. The little engine keeps on telling himself “I think I can”, or words to that effect as he slowly huffs and puffs his way upward. He eventually makes it to the top of the hill, and gleefully whizzes down the other side to his destination (he obviously wasn’t working for Amtrak!). Meanwhile, back in the real world, author Shel Silverstein points out in his response to that story, "The Little Blue Engine" that "If the track is tough and the hill is rough, THINKING you can just ain't enough!"

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll never criticize anyone who seeks to push the envelope and get more out of their careers, their relationships, their lives. I’ve no complaint against anyone who weighs the odds, considers the facts and then goes for it. Those people are the reason why we have things like personal computers and the Web. And there’s a lot of transformative change that’s been wrought by people who kept on keeping on in the face of what looked at the time like impossible odds. That’s one of the reasons why an African-American man is now president of the United States and not a janitor in Chicago’s city hall. But perseverance is only a virtue if it is tempered with some degree of rationality. There are few people who create more problems than those who blindly throw rationality to the wind and rush in where more sensible folks might fear to tread, lest they be labeled “quitters”.

Many of us became indoctrinated with the gospel of can-do-must-do in grade school. If you had difficulty with a particular assignment or academic subject, your teachers probably said it was because you weren’t trying hard enough. And it wasn’t very long ago that “failing” or “problem” children - those with learning disabilities or other issues - were segregated in “special schools”, or simply put out to the curb for the criminal justice system to haul away. And speaking of learning disabilities, why is it necessary to medicalize the strengths and weaknesses we are all born with? How different is turning a child who cannot read or do differential equations into a patient or a “case” from slapping a “Dunce” cap on his head and making him sit in a corner, as was done decades ago? Our weaknesses are merely the reverse-sides of our strengths. I myself cannot handle numbers. I got to be very familiar with the folks at my college’s remedial math lab until I made up my mind to stop beating my head against the wall, and switched majors from engineering to English. A disappointment? Yes. Was it the right thing to do? Yes again.

If people are the least bit honest with themselves, they will admit that there are certain things which they will never be competent at, let alone excel at, no matter how much effort they expend, no matter how many hours they practice, no matter how many times they beat themselves up for failing. Like a suit that’s two sizes two small, some things just don’t fit. Success only happens when you are on the proper path to it.

Americans need to let up, sit down and take a long, deep breath. Contrary to popular belief, life is not a race, a contest, or a fight to the finish in which the man standing next to you is your enemy. There are solid, rational reasons why civilized society has renounced the Law of the Jungle. Permit me to posit the heretical notion here that life is meant to be enjoyed, that competition does have its place (and should stay there), and that in most cases, failure doesn’t need to be a mark of disgrace or the end of one’s life.

1 comment:

urgeking said...

One little clarification on "The Little Engine That Could," stated most succinctly in a note on Wikipedia: "In the Watty Piper retelling"-- Watty Piper being a pseudonym for the woman who wrote the 1930s version of the story for the publishers Platt & Munk-- "the engine that breaks down and The Little Engine That Could are female, while all the engines who refuse to help are male." That little angle was something I happened to notice a year or two ago when I was re-reading the book at my parents' house. We will probably never know the reason for that gender emphasis, but wouldn't it be innaresting if "Watty Piper" turned out to be, say, a former suffragist? Or maybe she was just a woman who got pissed off at her selfish husband. Maybe one a' them socialist-progressive types, indoctrinating kids with their egalitarian ideas during the (First) Great Depression.... In any case, note that Rosie the Riveter and her sisters would start building Allied warplanes and doing other "manly" jobs only five or ten years after this book was first published.