It’s the Priorities, Stupid!

In truth, there is very little that we “can’t” do. While I say that I “can’t” move my kitchen counter, I could very likely manage it with a lot of effort and some tools and maybe a few injuries. What I mean when I say that I “can’t” do it is that I’ve made the entirely reasonable choice to not do so under almost any circumstance. But if someone held a gun to my husband’s head and told me that I had to move my kitchen counter to Sudbury, I’d figure it out.

We don’t commit illegal acts, not because we “can’t”, but because we have prioritized obeying the law / abiding by our personal ethics over whatever we would get out of the illegal act. I “can’t” have a client meeting on Friday, because I promised my husband that I would attend court to watch him examine a witness, and I place a higher value on keeping that commitment to him than I do on making myself available at all times to my clients.

But, because we communicate in this shorthand instead of explaining ourselves, we’re prone to misunderstandings which in turn lead to conflict.

For example: I was on the bus in a full length leg cast that I had concealed under my mega-huge snap-side racing-striped sweatpants. My cast went so high up my thigh that I had to sit on the very edge of the seat. I often slouched back in my seat, because I was a 12 year old lugging around 30lbs of plaster on emaciated leg, so I had to get some small comforts where I could get them. One day, a woman wanted to sit in a seat that was being partially obstructed by my leg and, when she asked me to move it, I said “I can’t”. She proceeded to yell at me about “kids these days” being lazy and disrespectful. And I, like a lazy disrespectful kid, and instead of using my words, simply knocked on my leg and then dramatically snapped open the side of my pants to convey that I was wearing a cast. She huffed away, likely embarrassed that she’d yelled at a crippled kid. But the entire incident could have been resolved much more cordially if, instead of saying “I can’t”, I had just said “I’m wearing a cast”. It wouldn’t have taken any more time or effort. And I would have much more effectively conveyed that I wasn’t trying to trivialize her needs and desires, but that I needed to address what I considered to be more pressing priorities.

And I’ve found that people are incredibly accommodating when they understand that we are not trying to be dismissive of their requests and when we effectively communicate our priorities.

But of course sometimes the evasion is intentional, because we don’t want to admit our priorities. Why “can’t” the United States afford universal healthcare? Why “can’t” we alleviate global poverty? Why “can’t” we provide reparations to the descendants of slaves? We travel into space and we get rid of the Estate tax, and the truth is that we just can’t seem to make people care in any consistent manner about the suffering of marginalized people.

I recommend that, when you have the choice, you shouldn’t start the conversation with “can’t”. And that, where it’s worth pressing the issue, you shouldn’t permit the conversation to end with “can’t”.

Posted in: Progress

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