Excuses (Part Six): I Can’t

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This is the final piece in my series on excuses. No doubt I could go on forever, discussing all the ways people try to sidestep responsibility and place the blame on somebody else. We could go all the way back to our first days of school with “My dog ate it!” through believable problems with computers and even claims that “You never told me that!” We say “I’m sorry?” or “I didn’t remember.” We declare, obnoxiously “Maybe next time if you . . .” We blame the dog for farting, and the children for eating the last piece of cake–the options are endless. There are always new excuses we devise to escape blame to any sort of problem. But for this last study I believe it is important to focus on those who can only blame themselves, for everything, taking every trouble to heart so deeply that they begin to imagine themselves the cause of all the world’s pain. These are the people so shattered that they have given up all hope. Such folks are walking tragedies, whose unhappiness infects everyone they come into contact with. It is the reason, in the end, why so many people die alone.

My mother-in-law is a lovely, kind, and extremely generous woman. Once upon a time she was a sharp, frequently nasty and a rather selfish woman, who treated her family with distance because, in her own life, she had never been properly taught how to love. And yet she does love, and passionately. She likely had no idea how much she depended on other people, this harsh and independent woman, until her husband (my father-in-law is among the kindest and most decent people I have ever met, hovering at the very top of a rather short list) abruptly died, killed in a head on collision.

It was a quiet moment, and still very painful to reflect upon. My son, for one, who was extremely close to his grandfather, cannot bear to drive through the same intersection where the tragedy occurred.

But my mother-in-law, as so many older people are when their lifelong partners disappear, was absolutely crushed. She crawled up inside her snail’s shell and refuses to peek her head out again. She was suddenly only filled with tears, lost, so dependent upon this man that she did not even know how to pay her bills.

Now we can go back several years before the tragedy and notice a rather drastic change in her personality. It began upon her retirement. My mother-in-law had spent the majority of her life as a kindergarten teacher, surrounded by demanding and bratty children (as well as a number of heavenly angels), screaming principals, incompetent administrators, and several of her lifelong friends. When we retire from a public profession, our world shrinks more than we realize. Several of those close friends fade away, while the others, still in contract, have run out of things to talk about. Everything had always been about work. The world gets much quieter. We start to call ourselves old.

My in-laws were in an earlier car accident–not a serious one, a minor fender bender that caused minimal damage. My father-in-law, never one to be so unmanly as to bother with a seat belt, suffered a few tiny scratches to his face. My mother-in-law, feeling so detached from the world, decided that the gentle shake she received constituted some sort of permanent damage. I am certain that she was pretty sore after this accident. But she claimed, without any doctors agreeing with her, that something serious had happened to her spine.

She went to numerous different medical professionals, none of whom would acknowledge her self-diagnosis. “I don’t see anything wrong,” they would say. “Just get some rest. You’ll be back on your feet in no time!” This was not acceptable. My mother-in-law, having drifted from the center of attention, latched onto this issue with a passion I had not seen in her since she used to criticize everyone with equal impatience and contempt.

Eventually she found a doctor–one of those crack-pot opportunists advertising on television, trying to make a name for themselves with their non-FDA approved medicines from their basement apothecary labs, or some newfangled surgery then thought up while drunk. This person said, “sure, sure. I can fix your back.” This was more than a year later, everyone else fully aware that she was recovered. My father-in-law rolled his eyes. But he was a dedicated, intensely loyal man. He would give her whatever she wanted.

Obviously this surgery did something to the poor woman’s spine. Now she hobbles around, shuffles, her head bowed. Her toes have atrophied from under use. Her hands–ever since wracked with a nervous energy that has her constantly rubbing them and claiming pins-and-needle discomfort, followed, always, by an anxious rub of her face, are beginning to curl too. She claims that everything, anything, she is unable to do.

“I can’t . . .” she mumbles, a terrific actress. Everyone accommodates her (except for me, but I am not part of this story, so we will let my encouragement go). There are, of course, times when we are engaged in activities that she is excited about, or had my wife plans for her. In those rare moments we watch her body fully recover and overflow with its former energy. She almost skips around, happy. She needs no help walking unless she realizes that we notice. She does not complain unless something becomes slightly more difficult. It is then that that same plea, “I can’t” mewls out, demanding that someone help her and take over all the responsibility she has for her life, in the same way that my father-in-law diligently gave to her.

So many people whine about not being able to do things–I can’t–I can’t–I can’t! And they don’t even try. It looks too hard. You don’t want to do something. You refuse. These are the worst excuses–the refusal to expend any effort on something that needs to be done. Not only is this a lie, but it is selfish, it blames everyone else for your problems, it claims that you didn’t know, whines about nothing being your fault and, finally, tells anyone who doubts your inability to try something that they don’t know what they’re talking about. This excuse includes the first five examples I gave in this series, and then takes it a step further into helplessness inspired by hopelessness.

This is not to say that there is not a great deal of genuine sympathy for those so afflicted with doubt. As decent people we should all want to help out sometimes. But the key to this–the way we can truly assist the helpless is by telling them that they are still able to do something for themselves. It is how we bring people back to life after the worst tragedies and the most terrible afflictions. If you are still alive, never say “I can’t” do something. Never. You need to prove this to yourself–that you can’t. There are always things people cannot do. If you cannot even try, then your life is already over.


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