Here’s the thing about “I can’t”

My students say, “I can’t,” a lot. Usually when I’ve just asked them to draw something. I’ll say something like, “Now I would like you to draw the story we’ve just read.” Then three or four or seventeen of my students will say/whine, “Yo no pueeeeeedooo, profeeeeeee.” (“I caaaaan’t, teeeeeacher”). (Dominican Spanish is very whiny, especially when it’s spoken by four year olds.) Then I respond with, “Si, tu puedes. Trata. Well, of course you can! Just try.” Usually the student takes my word for it, sits down, and draws something. Sometimes the student throws down their crayon, crosses their arms, and pouts because I clearly don’t understand that they just can’t draw the story of The Good Samaritan even though they’re so thoughtful and helpful English teacher has drawn them a nice, simple, totally doable example on the board. Even those students usually give in eventually and draw something. And when they do, they will be so excited to show it to me so that I can say things like, “Good job! That looks great!” and, “Beautiful!”

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Beautiful! Very very good job!

Side note: One of my students is a little parrot! He has all of this crazy curly hair that he stretches out until it’s straight and reaches his mouth so he can chew on it all day long. I thought for the first few weeks that he wasn’t really retaining anything, just because he seems to be in his own little world a bit. Then I saw him over by the days of the week poster pointing to each day and saying it in Spanish. This week he’s been complimenting his classmates’ on their work. “Very very good job!” he says.

The overuse of “I can’t” by my students (and my peers!) has got me thinking. Here’s the thing about “I can’t” – Rarely does it ever actually and literally mean “I physically/mentally/emotionally cannot do this.” More often than not, “I can’t” really means one (or a combination) of the following:

  • “I don’t want to.”
  • “I have never done that before.”
  • “That sounds hard.”
  • “That sounds embarrassing.”
  • “I might fail at that.”
  • “I can’t do that by myself.”
  • “That’s probably not for the best.”
  • “That sounds time consuming.”
  • “I’d have to cut into my TV-watching time to do that.”
  • “I’m scared!”

Is any of this ringing true? Think about it. When’s the last time you responded to someone’s (maybe your own) prompting with, “I can’t.” I remember three (or four? I might get carried away) big and fairly recent “I can’t” moments for me. At the end of last summer I was gearing up to leave three people I had loved and served and learned from and depended on for almost three months in order to move to a foreign country and, for the very first time, teach actual real live students in a school – students that spoke ZERO English, mind you. Let me tell you, the phrase “I can’t” entered into my mind A LOT. “I can’t do sleep in a room without Catherine on an air mattress next to mine!” “I can’t live without a microwave!” “I can’t teach kids English! What was I thinking?!” “I can’t actually speak Spanish!” “I can’t cook! I’m going to die of starvation!” “I can’t make new friends. I’m really bad at it.”

What I really meant was more along the lines of: “I’m scared that I’m going to be lonely.” “I don’t want to be inconvenienced.” “That sounds hard and I’ve never done that before.” “I’m unsure of my experience and training.” “Learning to cook sounds time consuming.” “Making new friends means thinking about someone other than myself. Ugh.” See what I mean? I physically, mentally, and emotionally was capable of doing all of these things (obviously, I mean, I did them and I survived and I came back) but I was mostly scared and selfish.

For the past year and a half (or something) I’ve been studying fear in the Bible and more specifically, the command “do not fear.” I’ve been all about fearlessness! And by “all about” I mean reading and writing about it while only letting a little bit of the truth and challenge into my actual life. Because “yo no pueeeedooooo, profffeeeeeee!” But just like we learned from the spunky dancers/volleyball players in the TV Movie Gotta Kick It Up, “Si, se puede!” which means, “Yes, you can!” Yes, I could move to a new country and teach students English who knew ZERO English. I could make new friends and cook and live without a microwave. I could and I did.

The second “I can’t!” scenario that comes to mind happened last fall, when I was on the phone with Becky from YouthWorks doing a phone interview. She asked if I had considered being a Site Director and I literally might’ve said, “I can’t!” Gosh, golly I can’t be in charge of 70 different people a week! I can’t do finances and lead meals and call adults on the phone! Are you nuts? But since I had already started that study on fear, instead of shouting all of that through the phone at Becky I said (after the initial, “What? I? Me? What? I can’t do – site director? What? Are you sure?”), “If you and God think I can be a site director, then I’ll do it.” Because physically I was able to show up and do all of the tasks required of a site director (there are a lot of sit-down responsibilities, which I am all about). I was mentally and emotionally stable and spiritually more mature than the average teenager. I knew all of this. So what I really meant when I said, “I can’t,” was, “I can’t do that without a lot of support.” And also, “That sounds like a lot of work!” Guess what? I did it. I was a Site Director (which probably means nothing to the majority of you) this summer at a FIRST TIME SITE (again, nothing, I know – humor me) in Indianapolis and I did it! I had a lot of support and it took up a lot of time but I could and I did.

When I was getting my flowers tattooed on my right arm I remember thinking, “This really hurts. This has to stop soon. I can’t take it. If he doesn’t stop soon…” and then I asked myself, “If he doesn’t stop soon… what? What’s going to happen if this guy with the tattoo gun keeps stabbing you with it?” I realized that nothing would happen. I wouldn’t die. My arm wasn’t going to fall off. I would survive. I could take it.

This past March my then-roommate, Nicole, and I went to the mountains to go horse back riding and take a tour of a coffee factory. It was a gorgeous and relaxing time and we ate ice cream twice a day. The very first thing we did (after checking into our hostel) was the horse back riding. I hadn’t ridden a horse since that one time at Camp Storer in fifth grade. Turns out there’s a lot more of me than there was back in fifth grade and I had some trouble getting my whole self up onto the horse. “I can’t do it!” I said, half laughing, half embarrassed, half tempted to give up (yeah, I was three halves.. like I said, there was a lot of me). I quickly realized that what I actually and really meant was, “I can’t get on this horse by myself!” So I shouted, “¡Ayudame!” and some brave and able fellows got my big butt up onto that horse while we all laughed our heads off. There’s a similar story from my time in Brooklyn where the role of the horse is played by a five foot brick wall. You can read about it here.

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See? I’m on a horse.

I’ve been hearing a lot of, “I can’t,” lately. “I can’t teach these kids English. It’s impossible.” “I can’t learn Spanish. Preterite verbs are hard!” “I can’t lead bible study.” “I can’t preach because I’m a woman.” “I can’t start a ministry! Then I’d have less time to watch Netflix and read free books on my Kindle.” “I can’t talk to my neighbors because we have nothing in common.” “I can’t give money to that homeless person because I don’t know where they’re going to use it!” “I can’t tell that person how I actually and really feel!” “I can’t afford that.” “I can’t impact the world for the gospel/for good/for God.” “I can’t do that.” “I can’t.” “I can’t.” “I can’t.” The list goes on and on.

I want to challenge us to figure out what we really mean when we say, “I can’t” and then to figure out how to get over it. Sometimes, you really physically, emotionally, or mentally do something and realizing limitations is good. Sometimes you actually can do something but it’s a really bad idea. That’s wisdom. Sometimes you actually can do something but you don’t want to. That’s laziness. And probably selfishness. And probably (if you’re me) pride, too. Figure out what you’re scared of, what’s stopping you, what priorities/habits/expectations need to change in order for you to believe those dancing volleyball players of Gotta Kick It Up when they shout, “Si, se puede!” Ask for help. Remind yourself of your qualifications. Trust your training! Trust your God. Trust yourself. Believe me when I shout, “Yes, you can!”

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