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The Hardest Words


What are the hardest words to say? We'd likely agree that “I forgive you” is tough to choke out most of the time. But others might bubble up on our lists: “I’m sorry.” “I really messed that up!” “I was wrong.” But what about the words that are apt to stick to the roof of our mouth if we feel compelled to utter them because they seem so negative, so weak, so resigned:

“I can’t.”

We’re remarkably capable. Most of us most of the time in most every situation function well. We learned our lessons as children and took to heart that being punished is just no fun. So we avoid it if at all possible and when it doesn’t seem possible, we come up with a workaround because we can. We like being in the driver’s seat as we navigate this business of living. For the most part, we’re hooked by the notions of success and admiration. If you’re aboard this boat, it’s a crowded one and nary a soul says the words, “I can’t.”

But when we fall into a patch of squishy, icky difficulty that pops up unannounced along our path and sink deeply into its clutches, virtually none of our own inner resources can catapult us back onto solid ground. We may ordinarily be smart, clever, flexible, and optimistic but mired in some dismal dark slime we feel puny, stuck, dense, inert. To ask for help seems a task too great for our tapped-out energy and, honestly, caped rescuers are never on stand-by when we need them. Hard as it is to admit, we’re smack in the middle of an “I can’t” predicament.

In his marvelous book Being Mortal Atul Gawande describes a care facility that decided to “attack” the “Three Plagues of nursing home existence: boredom, loneliness, and helplessness.” The plan was simple: more life. Live plants inside. Gardens outside. Dogs. Cats. Parakeets (100 of them!). Rabbits. In the wake of these changes, residents hiding out behind a screen of silence began to speak. Some addicted to sitting got up and walked. Most laughed. Often. Drug costs plummeted. Deaths decreased by 15%. Life all around the emotionally/socially dead triggered a groundswell of life within. The hardest words, “I can’t (get out of bed, get dressed, play bingo, face the day, etc.)” vanished from their vocabulary.

Plagues like boredom, loneliness, and helplessness leech the life out of us in most every location. Figuring out what can lift us out of darkness and despair from beyond us, outside of us, is not always a simple equation. But the hardest words could become a death sentence unless they are quelled by a groundswell of life.

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