Tuesday, February 21, 2012

You Can’t Say This Word

Recently I asked a brother if he would be interested in joining me for congregational prayers at the local masjid, as I knew that he prayed regularly. The response he gave me was, “I can’t, because I am too busy”.

Like the majority of people, the brother used the word “can’t” (ok, it’s really two words, but whatever) inaccurately in his response. It’s not that he "can’t" go to the masjid, because he does have the ability to go. The reality is that he is choosing not to go to the masjid based on his decision making process over competing priorities.

The brother could have said, "I don't want to" or "I won't". This way, he would be attributing the outcome of not going to the masjid to his own choice. The problem, however with admitting refusal on the basis of choice, rather than on ability, is that it can lead to a debate over values, priorities, and reasoning. The requester may attempt to reverse that choice. The requester might even feel offended by being refused on the basis of choice.

Using “can’t” avoids these problems by cunningly implying that the reasons for refusal, i.e., the circumstances, have impacted one’s ability, not one’s choice. Blaming ability is less controversial, less reversible, and a lot more polite than blaming one’s choice.

At its face value, the distinction between ability and choice may appear subtle, but it has significant implications on personal development.

The danger of “can’t” lies in actually believing that we truly can’t do something, when we say “can’t” to ourselves. One of the great obstacles to personal development is our belief about what we can and “can’t” do. If you believe that you “can’t” be wealthy, you probably won’t. If you believe that you “can’t” master physics, you probably won’t. If you believe that you “can’t” [fill in the blank], guess what, you probably won’t.

Beliefs concerning our “inabilities” are often fictitious, based on weak self-esteem, and can be traced back to isolated experiences that don’t relate current reality. Jack Canfield relates the following accurate analogy in The Success Principles:

“A baby elephant is trained at birth to be confined to a very small space. Its trainer will tie its leg with a rope to a wooden post planted deep in the ground. This confines the baby elephant to an area determined by the length of the ropethe elephant’s comfort zone. Though the baby elephant will initially try to break the rope, the rope is too strong, and so the baby elephant learns that it can’t break the rope. It learns that it has to stay in the area defined by the length of the rope.

When the elephant grows up into a 5-ton colossus that could easily break the same rope, it doesn’t even try because it learned as a baby that it couldn’t break the rope. In this way, the largest elephant can be confined by the puniest little rope.”

There is an elephant in all of us, connected to several flimsy ropes, believing that we cannot break out of them. As a result, we disempower ourselves, lower our own expectations, and inhibit our development. We have to question and challenge these “I can’t” beliefs to realize our full potential.  Jack Canfield says quite bluntly, “Don’t waste your life believing you can’t”.

“Can’t” shouldn’t be in the Muslim’s vocabulary anyway. It is true that in reality, everything only happens through the will and power of Allah, so from that perspective, we really can’t do anything. At the same time however, anything conceivable can happen through the will and power of Allah, so from that perspective, potentially we can do anything.  But when we define the “cans” and “can’ts” as if they lie in our hands, then we close the door to Divine power. But when we replace faith in our deeds with faith in Allah, we can achieve anything conceivable, inshaAllah.

I’ve simply decided to remove “can’t” from my vocabulary completely, whether in response to a request, or as a belief about myself. Simply saying “can’t”, even if used legitimately, has an effect on our psyche, so I just choose not to say it (though out of a bad habit, I still unconsciously say "can't" sometimes.

I have also made it a family policy that using “can’t” is not allowed at home. If I want to refuse a request, but still want to be polite in my refusal, I simply say, “I won’t manage to because…” Or I just state the reason for why I don’t want to do something.

Note that “can’t” has synonyms, such as “I won’t be able to”, “I wish I could”, etc. They all essentially mean the same thing.

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