The Tyranny of Should

I had someone tell me recently that she doesn’t do anything because she “should.” She has found that the healthiest way to be is to figure out what your body needs and then learn to listen to that. Far too often, we do what we think we should and ignore our needs. So for example, she said it might happen that you promised to help someone move and the day comes and you are really tired and you listen to your body and it would be ok to call and say “I’m sorry I won’t be able to help today.” And then you can take a nap or whatever it is that your body needs.
My reaction? I wouldn’t do anything then—ever! And neither would anyone else. I tried to think of something I do that is not because I “should” do it and I can hardly think of anything. Well, actually, I overheard my daughter playing a few years ago. She said, “Pretend I’m 40 and I’m a mom and you’re the kid and I tell you to just leave me alone because I’m reading my book.” Ouch, that one hurt! Guess reading is something….
But seriously, I think my life is ruled by “shoulds.” In fact, I “should” myself all the time. I should volunteer more at my kids’ schools. I should eat more vegetables. I should give more money to charity. I should call my parents more. I should play more games with my kid. I should clean my house more. It goes on and on.
And I see the woman’s point. Should can and does become tyrannical. Martin Luther even talked about that—500 years ago. Only he called it the Law. And he said the first job of the law is to show us what we should be doing. And its second job is to tell us that we aren’t doing it well enough.
That is what “should-ing” does. It shows us all the ways we don’t measure up. All the ways we aren’t a good enough mom, dad, co-worker, friend, whatever. Should never gives us a break. Should points out our sinfulness.
Luther’s response was to talk about our need for God. When we “should” ourselves, eventually we die. Metaphorically and literally. We die to that belief that we can do it all. Because admit it, those of you who live by the “should,” do you ever think you have done enough???
But Jesus forgives us and shows us that we don’t HAVE to do anything. There is nothing we can do to earn anything in God’s eyes. God saves us out of love and pure grace. And when we know that, we become free and start to do things not because we HAVE to, but because we GET to.
I think that the woman who said that I need to listen to my body better has a point. But I also think that when it comes to serving our neighbor, the fact is that we sometimes do need a kick in the pants. I mean, who wants to give up a Saturday to help someone move??? But you do it because that is what neighbors and friends and family do. We help each other. And whether I say I really should go and help or I get to go and help, someone still needs help.
So I am kind of stuck. I am still figuring out what it means to be free from “should.” And I am still wondering if I ever truly can be.
I mean, I know that God loves me for free. That I don’t deserve it. But I also know that I might want to just sit and read my book without my kids bugging me, but I need to go and be with them–cook them dinner, help them with their homework, drive them to practice….And it is often “should” that makes me do it.
So maybe I need to keep re-framing. Kids, neighbors, friends, family. They are gifts—even if they are demanding and don’t always let us do what we want to do. But it truly is a miracle that I am not alone in this world. I get to journey through life with others and they get to help me, even when they don’t want to, and I get to do things for them, even when I don’t want to.
It isn’t a perfect solution, but I’m still thinking it through. More next time….
What are your thoughts?

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3 responses to “The Tyranny of Should

  1. This is a great subject – I find some things I due as a duty and some as a delight. I need both. The delights motivate me but I know I need the “shoulds” duties too!

  2. After reading this and contemplating how the subject fits in my life, I realize that I don’t use “should”. I use “need” . for instances recently I felt I “needed” to be involved with VBS. If asked to help, I am needed. Does that mean what I do is no longer selfless? Because I am doing it for gratification? Hmmmm I replay in my mind responses when I find out someone is moving (example). I think/say I need to get over & help.

    • Interesting comment, Kathy. Trying to decide if should and need are all that different. I do like how need frames it better in what we are called to do being about helping our neighbor and the fact that we NEED to do that. God made the world to work that way and there is a gift in answering that need. Still pondering….

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