Anyone remember this little phrase from grammar classes? If you don’t, “could, should and would” are auxiliary verbs that can be defined as past tenses of can, shall, and will.
Often it is seen or heard in popular culture as “Could Have, Would Have, Should Have,” or worse and woefully incorrect: “could of, should of, would of” – contractions, people, it’s “could’ve” for “could HAVE”, oy – which yields the slanged up but clever “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda.”
But that’s not why I bring it up; my grammar Nazi tendencies stop here and my opportunity Nazi takes the stage. Because while most think of this phase as symbolizing lost opportunities (could have, should have, would have, all in the past), I think of them in a future sense: could do, should do, would do.
I should say, too, that I object to compulsory concepts in general, in the meta sense. I do not truly believe that there are actual things people are compelled to do via some absolute cultural imperative. There are no actual “should do’s,” for instance, no “ten commandments” style universals. For example, there is no absolute requirement that a person honor, respect, or love a parent that abuses and damages them. In my world, these “could, should, would” outcomes are those I define, for me personally. They are merely guardrails around my own thought experiments, the drivers and buckets I use to organize and motivate my life.
With that bit of philosophical housekeeping out of the way … I have referred in previous musings to my inner Greek chorus, my own personal “Peanut Gallery.” Those are the inner voices I have – that it seems most people have – except I seem to have a crowd, not just a single voice. The voice I hear most often is my Inner Puritan; I call him Cyrus, and he’s a nagging, bitching, petulant pain in the ass. He’s the one that insists I work first, not play. The one that rationalizes why I should stop procrastinating. He’s my prude and my put-upon workhorse. He is also why I am reliable when I often want to be very *not* reliable, so he’s not *all* bad.
However, his favourite word is Should. He’s around to tell me what I ought to do. He has no ken or care for what I might do or what I want to do. A very single-minded bastard is Cyrus.
I spend entirely too much time fretting over what I should be doing, fussing with Cyrus about it, and feeling guilty. I would rather (WOULD) turn my attention and energy to what I could do, what I would do. But those are harder to answer for me. They require a bit of thought, while the Shoulds march at me like demanding little armies of To Do’s. It is all too easy to know exactly what I *should* be doing, and far harder to know what I would do or could do, if only I would or could.
My father called them one’s “druthers.” As in, “what you druther do.” What would I rather do? When I marinate a bit on Could’s and Would’s, it is the Would’s that are easier to nail down, because they seem dreamy and unrealistic. It’s much easier to build castles in the sky than castles on the ground, after all. And answering “what would I do if I won the lottery” is far easier to answer than “what could I do if there were no limits.” I suppose that’s because I cannot really think in quantum or untethered terms; my job rewards my reductive mind, not my creative one, so I am usually in that trained state of mind. It takes effort to engage in situations and with people that bring me out of that rigid, exacting mindset. (And if I am overworked, then call it a lost cause. I cannot think clearly if my mind is dedicated mostly to work pursuits.)
Also, it is very concrete (thus, easier) to consider the removal of something specific and familiar like money restrictions and much harder to think about what is possible with the elimination of multiple barriers that in reality cannot be erased, like the constraints of lost time (i.e., I cannot reduce my age) or areas of experience I have never had (i.e., could I be an international spy).
To me, this is the fundamental human condition in the modern world – determining the coulds, shoulds, and woulds. It informs any need one might have for “meaning” in life. It drives not only how we use our time, but what we decide to major in during college, what we pursue as hobbies, who we hang out with, what we value as we live and what we regret when we are dying. Just like when Sarah Conner carves “NO FATE” into the table in the film “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” there is no fate except the one we make for ourselves. [Those who say “It wasn’t meant to be” or the “Don’t stress over what could’ve been; if it should’ve been it would’ve been” crowd make me itch to ask, “Meant by whom? And why?” That thinking smacks of gentle gods having a design for each person, as if a universe revolves around them. How smugly conceited and what intellectual gruel! As an existentialist atheist, I reject all kinds of magical thinking, even the kind that makes me feel better about my faults, foibles, and fuck-ups. No fate but what you make, I say, and that is a view shared with some very brilliant ancients, including Epicurus, Cicero, and Virgil.]
To answer my own Shoulds, I have only to wake in the morning, and my eyes spring open (sometimes more slowly than others) with the litany of To Do’s ready, waiting, and all-too-obvious. Sometimes I feel buried to my neck on a beach that is my To Do’s.
To answer my Coulds and Woulds, I struggle and flail and sometimes cannot come up with even a single token. (If I needed further confirmation that my life is out of balance, here it is.) Some seed of Coulds/Woulds informs any resolutions I make at a new year (and this year I made ZERO, thanks to brainburn from work).
Ultimately I come up with only a few of each, and they are hard to hold in my head, to remember as easily as I do the Shoulds, so I am scratching out a few here, and maybe they will become DIDs:
▪ I would get my Masters in something fun and wonderful, like creative writing. And I would do it just for me, not for work and any other ‘productive’ reason.
▪ I would spend some of my days doing yoga, reading books, and making bread by hand. The other days I would spend writing.
▪ I would tend my own backyard farm: an organic garden, with chickens and maybe goats.
▪ I would make all my gifts, especially birthday gifts: soaps, knitting, baked goods. People would get my affection via the gifts I made with my hands.
▪ I would go on daily hikes.
▪ I could be a linguist or a professor of language; I love many different languages and have an ear for learning new ones.
▪ I could be a novelist, perhaps even a popular one.
▪ I could be an editor and read books all day for a living.
▪ I could be well-rested.
▪ I could be more patient and less frustrated, if I had more rest and more time.
▪ I could live in a small cabin in the woods.