Some years ago, when I had time for such things, I wrote on a slip of paper (and later taped it to my mirror):
There is no such thing as should.
Sure, if you want to talk context, there is a should. For example, if I want to feel healthier, the ideal thing for me to do (i.e. I should) eat healthfully and exercise. But this should can only exist inside the constraint of the goal. If you take the goal away, the should vanishes.
There is only is.
We are not as familiar with the ecstatic existentialist as with her ever-gloomy counterpart, but when we begin to explore this philosophy, we can’t look long before we encounter it–that exuberant exhale that comes when the impossible ideal is expunged.
When Jenny Lewis croons, “The absence of God will bring you comfort, baby,” it may feel counter-intuitive. God is the great comforter, right? Both believer and unbeliever tend to agree, and yet here, someone professes restfulness in God’s nonexistence?
And Camus, in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” (many an existentialist’s manifesto) ends his essay on the futile underworld laborer so:
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the greater fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights i enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Just how could Sisyphus feel happy without purpose, and how could this Jenny character promise comfort devoid of that omnipresent keeper?
There’s an anarchy to it: this smashing of ideals–those platonic perfects in the sky. Inherent in the act lies an exultant cry for freedom.
So, maybe the God example is too much, too ultimate. (I personally like to think God exists in one form or another.)
Allow me to reference a smaller, less mythologized ideal: The perfect female form. (Though, I suppose, ever-changing, this is well-mythologized, too.) Corporations bank on the idea of the perfect female body. Clothing lines, makeup companies, the entire diet industry. I can’t fathom the kind of money that this ideal makes for some people.
But imagine, as a woman, the exhilarating rush you would have annihilating said ideal. And I mean just destroying it, so completely, you never imagined it to exist again, never compared yourself to it, never deprived yourself for it, never judged yourself against it.
It would probably feel good, right? It would allow you to focus on real things like your body’s healthfulness, or the taste of food, or how awesome it feels to have legs that walk and arms that reach and a heart that beats.
There is no should mother. No should house. No should dinner or state of cleanliness.
Unless I have a specific goal in mind, I can leave those shoulds behind.
Which is what I told myself this Monday, when the Orthopedist strapped my two-month old into a Pavlic harness–a snug fitting twist of sterile straps built to restrain his legs from movement. They pull his legs up and out into an odd and vulnerable split he will hold for the next three months of his life, without break. His diagnosis (Hip Dysplasia) happened so quickly I had no moment to conceptualize its weight. I was too busy concentrating on the doctor’s instructions.
And now everything’s different. He won’t be able to roll over. I’ve had to bag all his clothes. He can no longer wear them. I can’t play this little piggy on his toes (They’re stuffed into clothed-over stirrups) or give him baths.
For the first couple days, his crying was at times vague, at times frantic. He seemed confused and uncomfortable, but he adjusted quickly, and three days later, we find ourselves aching for a new norm. We all just want to get used to it.
And what helps, at least it helps me, is when I think of all those things he should be doing, and I should be doing, the memories we should be making, the way his body should have been formed–well, it helps to think those shoulds don’t exist–that all that really exists is now, and this baby, and if I can forget all the shoulds (those ideals) that rush into crowd us, I can look down at this baby (who is sleeping on my chest as I write this), with his legs hitched up, out, and stationary, that everything is maybe, quite perfect indeed.
I leave you with the parting words of Wendell Berry’s poem, Observance:
of his forgetting allows the sun
flows away, its blue and white
peeling off the green waves.
His mind contains
the river as its banks
contain it, in a single act
receiving it and letting it go.