Think Hard

The Should/Could Switch (or, how to stop sounding like an arsehole)

Written by joelsnape

There are a lot of shoulds flying around this week, from every spot on the political spectrum. Ones you might have heard include: people should be better informed about the decisions they make, people shouldn’t rely on one source of news, people shouldn’t believe politicians – and of course, the always-popular people should just be a bit more like me (paraphrasing).  It’s exhausting trying to keep up, if I’m honest.

Then again, there are a lot of shoulds flying around in general, all the time. Some classics from my own sphere of interest:

  • Everyone should just educate themselves on the right way to eat, and eat better.
  • Everyone should find time for exercise.
  • Everyone should read more books.
  • Everyone should get nine hours of sleep a night/ignore supermarket shelving specifically designed to be enticing/see through advertising specifically designed to trick them/work harder/focus on long-term self-improvement.
  • Everyone should be a bit more like me.

Look, if you do these things, good for you. I try to do them myself. But the thing is – and I hate to say it like this – you sound like an arsehole.

Here’s a thing you actually already know: not everyone’s life is the same as yours. Easy to articulate, difficult to remember, even harder to actually genuinely understand. I forget it myself, and then I read something like this bit from David Simon’s The Corner, an account of the year he spent in the 24-hour drug market at the intersection of West Fayette and Monroe in Baltimore:

In the end, we’ll blame them. We always do.

If it was us, if it was our lonesome ass shuffling past the corner every day, we’d get out, wouldn’t we? We’d endure. Succeed. Thrive. No matter what, no matter how, we’d find the fucking exit. 

If it was our fathers firing dope and our mothers smoking coke, we’d pull ourselves past it. We’d raise ourselves, discipline ourselves, teach ourselves the essentials of self-denial and delayed gratification that no one in our universe ever demonstrated. And if home was the rear room of some rancid, three-story shooting gallery, we’d rise above that, too. We’d shuffle up the stairs past nodding fiends and sullen dealers, shut the bedroom door, turn off the television, and do our schoolwork. Algebra amid the stench of burning rock; American history between police raids. And if there was no food on the table, we’re certain we could deal with that. We’d lie about our age to cut taters and spill grease and sling fries at the sub shop for five-and-change-an-hour, walking every day past the corner where friends are making our daily wage in ten minutes. 

No matter. We’d persevere, wouldn’t we? We’d work that job by night and go to class by day, by some miracle squeezing a quality education from the disaster that is the Baltimore school system. We’d do all the work, we’d pay whatever the price. And when all the other children are out in the street, learning the corner world, priming themselves for the only life they’ve ever known, we’d be holed up in some shithole of a rowhouse with our textbooks and yellow highlighter, cramming for finals. Come payday, we wouldn’t blow that minimum-wage check on Nikes, or Fila sweat suits, or Friday night movies at Harbor Park with the neighborhood girls. No fucking way, brother, because we pulled self-esteem out of a dark hole somewhere and damned if our every desire isn’t absolutely in check. We don’t need to buy any status; no, we can save every last dollar, or invest it, maybe. And in the end, we know, we’ll head off to our college years shining like a new dime, swearing never to set foot on West Fayette Street again. 

Yes, if we were down there, if we were the damned of the American cities, we would not fail. We would rise above the corner. And when we tell ourselves such things, we unthinkingly assume that we would be consigned to places like Fayette Street fully equipped, with all the graces and disciplines, talents and training that we now possess. Our parents would still be our parents, our teachers still our teachers, our broker still our broker. Amid the stench of so much defeat and despair, we would kick fate in the teeth and claim our deserved victory. We would escape to live the life we were supposed to live, the life we are living now. We would be saved, and as it always is in matters of salvation, we know this as a matter of perfect, pristine faith.” 

Yeah, maybe read that again. Because here’s the thing: however much you would like people to think like you, act like you, take control of their lives like you’ve taken control of yours, not everyone can. Not everyone has your advantages, your upbringing, your resources, your background. If you’ve risen above awful circumstances to become a success (I haven’t, my life has basically always been lovely), great. But not everyone can.

So here’s my suggestion.

Next time you find yourself saying ‘Everyone should…’, flip the mental switch to ‘It would be nice if everyone could…‘ 

Two reasons. Firstly, this automatically flips you into a more sympathetic frame of mind, and lets you start from the empathetic point of view of remembering that not everyone has the luxury to live in the same way as you. Secondly, it shifts your own role from critical bystander to engaged participant. Because, really, if you know what’s best for everyone, why aren’t you helping them with the process? Let’s try it out:

  • It would be nice if everyone could educate themselves on the right way to eat, and eat better. (Help to spread the word about what healthy eating actually means, ways to do it simply and cheaply and easy rules of thumb to follow)
  • It would be nice if everyone could find time for exercise. (Help people to understand how to fit simple forms of exercise into their day, or do it at home, or while they watch TV)
  • It would be nice if everyone could read more books. (Donate old books to people/places that could use them)
  • It would be nice if everyone could be more politically informed (Where were you before the #Brexit, genius?)

I think it might work. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of using a post about not hectoring people to tell you what to do. But if everyone could try this, this week, maybe we’d get somewhere.

HOMEWORK: Read The Corner, and set yourself a new standard for what you expect of investigative reporting. And try the above for the next seven days.

 

 

About the author

joelsnape

Editor and creator of Live Hard. Fighting enthusiast, steak lover and aficionado of all things self-improvement related.

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