Thursday, September 24, 2015


I had an interesting conversation with my therapist today.

Yes, I go to therapy regularly.  If your therapist doesn't, or hasn't had extensive experience as a client, get another therapist.  Therapists aren't supposed to give advice - but I'm pretty comfortable with that one.  Your mileage may vary, yadda yadda.

We were talking about some events in my life and I mentioned maybe I should have done something differently.  My therapist said "There is no such thing as 'should'".

To which I said - "yes, of course there is such a thing as 'should'" because I think there is a lot of crap floating about the self-help, self-development, and therapy community about how everything is created by our intentions, or how everything is a cultural construct, etc. etc.  My opinions on these ideas are complex, at least several paragraphs worth, but I think I can very simply state that no, our actions really can hurt others in ways we are responsible for and therefore there are some actions we have a responsibility to avoid.  In other words, "shoulds" are real.

At the same time, I, like many people, have an over developed sense of what I am responsible for.  I take too much personal responsibility for the suffering of others.  I am too ready to pick up the need to apologize or to take on guilt or shame for something that often is not my fault, responsibility, or personal business at all.

So after spending some time picking this idea apart with my therapist it became clear that what they were trying to help me understand is that "should" is an abstraction, divorced from the moral facts of a situation.  "I should do X" doesn't really help us understand exactly what is the moral situation with X.  It is a summary - a conclusion - not a starting point.  So in that sense, yes, there is such thing as "should".  It is an abstract concept that is ungrounded in circumstances.  It is easy enough to say "I shouldn't kill people."  but its also easy to see there are times when yes, actually you should kill people.  So what is this "should" if it has all these exceptions and qualifiers?  Its an idealization - an abstraction - something without a direct correspondence in our lives.  It is a real object - but its a real thought object - a different kind of thing than say "kill" which much more directly represents choices, actions, and consequences.

So instead of saying "should I do XYZ?" , "should I apologize?", "should I intervene?" you get closer to the real quandary if you try to ask what is really going on.  What harm has been done?  What kind of intention was behind the harm?  How are those harmed reacting to it?  Are they suffering?  Are they aware of it? Are they over-reacting?  Are they under-reacting?

All of which is just a really verbose way of saying its a good idea to question ourselves whenever we say "should", about ourselves or others.  Make sure we understand what is really happening.  Don't be satisfied with an abstract intuition of obligation.  That intuition is a guidepost - an invitation to reflect - it isn't the answer or the truth.

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