While I was away in North Carolina, I smelled like strawberries and some kind of coconut concoction allegedly endorsed by monkeys.
After a mind-twistingly long drive, I was in desperate need of sleep. I hadn’t unpacked yet. Couldn’t bring myself to. But I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I’d had a shower. I used my niece’s bathroom, and that’s what she had — strawberry body wash and fun-fun-fun, 2-in-1 coconut monkey shampoo. I was too tired to consider the ramifications. So I just used it.
A few minutes later, tucked into my 6-year-old nephew’s bed under Super Mario Bros. sheets, I thought to myself as I drifted off, I smell like fruit.
When I awoke a whopping two hours later to greet my niece and nephew – yep, I still smelled like fruit. When my niece hugged me, for the first time in about a year, she said, “Uncle Erik!” and then “Hey, you smell like fruit!”
And do you know what? I didn’t care. I’m pretty sure society was screaming at me, “You’re a grown man! You should care!” But I didn’t. And why should I care whether I smell like strawberries or monkeys or whatever “cool sport scent” is supposed to be? I was clean and happy and reunited with family. Did it matter?
It’s surprising to me how many shoulds we allow ourselves to be placed under. What we should or should not wear. How our hair should or should not be. What kind of car we should or should not drive. Whom we should or should not associate with. I’ve lived in enough decades by now to know that the shoulds change. What you should wear and drive and say in the 80s are most definitely should nots in 2011. And if it’s always changing, was it that important to begin with?
I lived a life fraught with shoulds for a long time growing up.
I should be perfectly behaved at all times.
I should not let my hair get to such a length that it touched my eyebrows or ears or collar.
I should always say yes when people asked me to do something for them.
I should not play the piano or sing or be artistic, being a boy.
I should pretend I am fine and happy, whether I really am or not.
I should not question anyone in authority. Ever. No matter what.
In college, the shoulds I’d placed on myself nearly cost me my life.
I was maintaining a 4.0, because that is what I should do. A 3.95 was the same as failure. But I was also surrogate parent to Brandon. And I was also interning. And I was also on an international singing team that was planning to travel to Asia in a few months.
One night, I met up with a friend outside her dorm. I started to feel dizzy. She ran inside, and in a few minutes, returned with a large, plastic cup of Tang. When I held the cup in my hands, it felt strange. It occurred to me as I took the first few gulps that I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a drink. Of anything. I tried hard to remember when the last time I’d eaten was, or what kind of meal it had been. I couldn’t.
Moments later, a fire erupted in my gut, spreading out, taking over my body. A few moments later, I was on the ground in a tight ball. Blackness. My roommate appeared out of thin air. Then I was somewhere else, over his shoulder, screaming. Blackness. I was lying down and couldn’t move. Someone jabbed my arm. Red and blue lights. Blackness. I’m moving fast. Sirens. I hear my roommate beside me say, “… and then he just collapsed in my arms.” I reply, “How romantic.” Blackness. I’m in a hospital bed. It’s the next day. I’m hooked up to a bunch of machines. I still had no idea what had happened to me.
When I was released from the hospital a few days later, my mom called my dorm room. Being a nurse, she asked me many questions about my stats. I learned that she’d been keeping close tabs with the doctors in the ER by phone while I was in the hospital. The best anyone could figure, I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in about ten days.
“But you feel all right now?” she asked, full of concern.
“Yes,” I said. “I feel fine. Tired and weird that I missed days of my life, but fine.”
Once satisfied that I was, in fact, all right, my mother’s quiet concern gave way to the lion’s roar. “Good! Well, then you’re an idiot! You nearly killed yourself. And a four-point-oh GPA does you absolutely no good if you’re DEAD!” She went on to explain that I’d been in critical condition due to the severe dehydration. My temperature had dropped to death’s door and, as I recall, certain organs were already beginning to shut down by the time I got to the hospital.
I’ve quoted my mother’s words many times to myself and others since then: “A 4.0 does you no good if you’re dead.”
It’s true. Keeping all the shoulds in the world are no good if they are at the cost of your life.
OK, so maybe it isn’t always quite so dire. Maybe the trade-off for holding up your shoulds is stress. Anxiety. Missed opportunities to follow a dream. Or simply living life less fully than you could (e.g., “You’re not young anymore, you know. You shouldn’t be out on the dance floor acting like that”).
I’m not advocating irresponsibility. Rather I’m suggesting that we ask ourselves, when we feel the pressure of shoulds or should nots in our lives, whether we believe in them, or whether we are merely conforming to external expectations.
You’ll recall Carlotta’s advice that, in essence, “no one can make you happy.” I would add that neither should anyone else be able to keep you from being happy, with unnecessary expectations. In the end, you are the only one responsible for you. It’s that simple.
I say shed the shoulds.