I can’t, he said.
I’m the worst one, he complained.
Why do I have to do this? he asked.
Thanks to my many – many – years of life, and due to objectivity only slightly marred by Mommy Goggles, I know he’s wrong about being the worst. But I also know the danger of I can’t.
My father always quoted someone (who? I can’t remember), saying “I can’t never could do nothin’.” Even as a child, I was tortured by that butchering of the English language, and yet I cherished the wisdom within. Grammatically painful, yes. True, all the same.
I can’t is the kiss of death. The scariest part of lying to ourselves this way? We only need to utter one I can’t or I’m stupid or I’m worthless before we start believing it.
Mark and I regularly tell our kids that we want them to take I can’t out of the mix. Say it’s hard or I’m learning or I haven’t figured this out yet. But, for the love, don’t say I can’t. So when my son stared at the floor and mumbled can’t, followed by quit, I wanted to yell, Do not ever say that again!
I didn’t yell (a small parenting win, I guess). Instead, I told him about how hard it is for me to run. I told him that I kind of suck at it, although I think I said stink. We don’t say ‘suck’ (out loud, in front of the kids). I told him how I’m slow, I hurt, and at moments I want to quit. At lots of moments.
So why do you do it? Puzzlement in his eyes.
For the journey, I said. It’s about the journey.
You mean like a long trip?
No, wait, that’s exactly it.
This, here, this life? It’s a trip. As in, duuude, that’s a trip; and as in, a journey.
We can choose to sit still, doing only the things we’re good at – and for most of us who are not Justin Timberlake, the things we are really, truly good at number in the low single digits. I’m not saying we’re talentless hacks. We have a few things that are our things, but the rest of it takes work. A lot of work.
For me, the process of doing that work is where I find the reward. If I woke up one day and could effortlessly run 13 miles I would… freaking love it. And yet, crossing the finish line wouldn’t be as rewarding. Running would suddenly be like making coffee.
See, I make coffee by putting a pod into a magical machine that spits out liquid smiles on demand. The process takes, oh, 73 seconds. And the coffee is good. It makes me happy, and peps me up.
In spite of all that goodness and pep, I feel no sense of accomplishment, no pride. I have never posted a picture of my Coffee Making Finisher’s Medal (but I admit to posting too many cups of coffee on Instagram – it’s like posting pictures of your kids; we photograph what we love).
Back to the coffee-running analogy. It’s hard to feel pride in something that requires no effort. There’s no journey involved in my magical coffee-making, even if some mornings the 37 steps from bed to coffee do seem awfully long. Without planting, tending, harvesting, roasting, and grinding my own beans, I can’t claim to have achieved anything in the brewing process. You know, other than a caffeine high.
Like putting in the training miles before a race, or growing your own coffee beans, it’s the process that changes us.
The moments in life that sand us until we shine are not singular. There’s nothing quick about them. Instead, it’s more like a cross country road trip with toddlers: when it’s over, you realize you made more stops than you planned, took a wrong turn or five, and – probably – wept a little.
These journeys make us who we are.
As for my son, he nodded along and said he got it. It’s likely he just wanted me to stop talking, but he did say that he wanted to work harder, too. He said he would focus on the process instead of on being the best. Sure, he has since slipped into mopey mode over a lousy ball game or a rough day at school. He has been grumpy a time or two, but not once has he said, I can’t.
I’ve been away from this space for longer than anticipated. No good story behind that absence, just a little behind-the-blog writing and work going on. Some planning and thinking and dreaming. I’d rather write nothing here than post half-baked rambling (oh, I know I’ve done that before, it’s just not my favorite). I always miss this space when I’m gone, though – it’s nice to be back here today!
Happy Belated Mother’s Day to all of the fabulous mothers in my life. I hope you had a beautiful weekend.