Should: The Ultimate Obscenity


If I had a transcription machine tied to my brain, it would document my thoughts. I could shuffle through the pages it generated and review my internal dialogue. I would probably laugh at a few bits, underline certain insights and skip over the inane fluff.  And then, like a diligent paralegal, I would redact every instance of the word “should,” crossing it out with a fat black magic marker. I can imagine how the pages would look, heavy with back ink bleeding through the sheets of paper, rendered impure by that pervasive insidious word.

Should. It is an implication of what I want for myself but do not do. Any phrase that starts with “I should…” could almost invariably be followed with “but I won’t.” As a rule, I almost never do the things I say I should do. If I really meant them, I would do them rather than talk about them. “Should” is a facile term, requiring no effort on the part of the speaker. It is a self-defeating term, setting standards that are never achieved. It is a cowardly term, beseeching its audience to refute rather than validate it.

Replacing the word “should” with something else will almost categorically improve the original statement.

Take a simple example where someone claims: “I should be working.” If the speaker really meant it, they will act on it. If they aren’t going to act on it, the sentence is flawed. Perhaps they actually can’t work right now, in which case the original statement could be rephrased “I want to work right now but I can’t.” It’s possible they want to be talked out of it, in which case they could’ve instead said “I am not sure whether or not to work right now.” What if they actually do the thing they said they should do? Well then why not just say it? “I am going to work right now.” In every case, “should” just obscures the true meaning, watering it down.

But I don’t hate this word because it is opaque. The real reason for this vendetta of mine is that the word “should” regularly undermines the speaker. It represents low self-worth, neediness, helplessness. I wish I didn’t think so but I see it as a female word, representing the voluntary limitations we often apply to ourselves in opposition to all we are and can be.

If there was an etch-a-sketch tied to my brain, it would draw pictures of the person I think I should be: stronger, smarter, skinnier, prettier, more productive. In the image, my arms would be outstretched, forever grasping for an unreachable standard, the me I think I should be.

I want to shake that picture until the shoulds fall away. I want to banish that word from my vocabulary. I will do what I must and adjust my demands for the rest. I long to put the black marker down, let my arms rest by my side, and be at peace.

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