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  • Writer's pictureSam

If I Were a Rich Man . . .

In the wonderful musical "Fiddler on the Roof," the hero, Tevye, engages in irrealis speech, a use of the subjunctive mood. Confused? Me too, and I wrote the sentence.

Irrealis speech is, simply put, speech about something that is not real. The subjunctive mood, grammarians will tell us, is speech that refers to something that is not real but speculative. "If I were a rich man . . ." I would do such-and-such. That is the subjunctive applied to the past or present. In a way, it's sort of fun to imagine an alternative universe in which we are richer, smarter, better looking, more athletic, etc. Unless it becomes obsessive--or we begin to confuse our reality with our dreams or aspirations--it's all rather harmless and the source of much good fiction and escapism.

Where it can get us into trouble is when the subjunctive mood turns from our past or present to someone else's. This shift is often marked by a "should:" "He should have been nicer to me," "After all I've done for her, she should be more grateful," "He should work harder," etc.

It's dangerous to let people "should on us." It's also dangerous to "should" on ourselves. "I should be more successful," "I shouldn't have married my partner," "I should be more caring." Now, there is nothing bad with wanting to be more caring, or successful, or hard-working, or even humble. But it's the shaming element of the "shoulding" that bores a hole in our soul. It's the implicit but not so subtle "I'm not enough" message that eats away at us. Despite what some folks think, it kills rather than fuels motivation.

You know this. When you feel confident and capable, you can move into your future with a clear head and a realistic sense of possibilities. On the contrary, when you are weighed down with someone else's negative judgements of you, or of yourself, the future seems like a hill too steep to climb.

So, stop letting people "should on you." Stop shoulding on yourself or on other people. Love them (and yourself) where they are and build them up with honest, sincere, praise and focus on what has been done and done well, not what might have been or may never be.

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