Because I have had so many kids in the school district, I once knew many many many of the teachers and administrators – all long retired now, if even still alive. Some of my kids were in the special education department and I certainly knew those teachers well. One day, having a conversation about his program for one of my kids who had – and still has – severe academic learning problems, one of his long time teachers told me that I had to accept the fact that my son “had limits.”
Let’s see now: I adopted him……… I lived with him………….. I was impacted by his abilities (and otherwise) every day of my life, and had been for years by that point. But I was now being given this revelation from this teacher whom I had known – and once respected – that my son had limits. I simply said to the teacher words to the effect (well….somewhat stronger than what I write here) that I full well knew, better than anyone, that my son had limits. But having watched him grow and learn things beyond anything that anyone had ever predicted for him, neither he (the teacher) nor I (the father) yet knew what those limits were. Therefore, he, the teacher, was to eliminate that concept from his belief system, as I had eliminated it from mine, and teach my son. Would my son reach some limit someday? I don’t know. I’m sixty two, have I? The point is to avoid – desperately avoid – making any kind of self-fulfilling prophecy about any other human being, especially one who is in our care and responsibility.
I can’t jump up from my roof and reach the moon. Nor can you. Is that a self-fulfilling prophecy that I am making? I don’t think so. I think that it is a legitimate use of the word “can’t.” It is a situation that is either evident or easily verifiable. But I say all the time when I am watching these unnecessarily graphic TV shows that are broadcast nowadays (“Criminal Minds” and “Chicago Fire” spring to mind) that I can’t ever become a doctor or even a nurse because I can’t deal with all the blood, and gore. In that situation, the use of the word “can’t” is really a misuse. I actually mean that I wouldn’t want to or I couldn’t easily see doing it. But using my much used “imaginary scenario” tool (see posting June 25, 2011) I could well imagine realistic situations where I would deal with all the blood and gore; e.g. helping an accident victim who is right in front of me or some such. To get Chris Huntington back in my life right now? Or Aunt Rita? Or Gilbert, Irving, Ricky, or Abraham? Or many others? I would deal with any blood and gore that I had to in that imaginary scenario. So: not “can’t” but rather “won’t” or “don’t want to,” would be the proper words for my position.
But there is a third use of the word “can’t” and it’s that use that leads to this posting. It’s the use that the teacher was doing. And I have seen it elsewhere plenty of times. People use it to tell us what a third person “can’t” do. Based supposedly on the objective evidence of what the person has done or not done. And the evidence is real, and sometimes even overwhelming. But as Chris Huntington taught me so well: there is nothing that is not mutual. To use a wonderful old and very wise saying: “It betrays more [about the user of it] than it conveys [about the person being referred to].” It’s what the psychiatrist I wrote about three weeks ago was doing when he implied that he knew with the certainty of God that the boy he was treating required the meds he was on, no matter the alternative explanation that I was able to give for the better behavior. And, of course, the unwillingness to explore options.
This use of the word “can’t” tells us little or nothing about the person it refers to despite all the evidence that is pulled out to convince us (or maybe themselves.) But it tells us loads and loads and loads about the user of it: beginning with the person’s incredible hubris, arrogance, and conviction that the person they are talking about is somehow “broken” in a way that they themselves, of course, are not. When spoken by a declared enemy, say an angry cop for a drug dealer, the disrespect is at least out there, able to be confronted. But when spoken by a helping person, especially a professional such as a therapist, a social worker, a teacher, a psychiatrist, or even – hell, especially – a parent, it is buried underneath layers of “niceness.” And buried destructiveness has no peer in the power of the destruction because it attacks the very identity as a human being of the person we say “can’t” do, feel, think, change, or whatever.
Want to know how to catch it in another or even in oneself? Look for “feeling sorry for.” That will reveal it every single time.
Jack, you are RIGHT ON in this post, on so many levels.
My primary work is with chronically ill children, who have serious physical and learning limits at the point at which I begin to see them and their parents. Some have had years of misdiagnosis before finding the right doctor, and beginning effective treatment.
What frustrates me the most is that so many of them have seen doctors who had no answers, and therefore presumed a mental illness (somatization disorder? school phobia? anxiety?) or a family problem (even Munchausen’s by Proxy, the accusation given to the parent, usually the mother). The “professionals” actually believe that if they can’t find the answer (the diagnosis, the right treatment plan), or if the “treatments” didn’t resolve the symptoms, then the answer is not there. How could it be there if the doctor who thought he/she was, or acted as if he/she was, God didn’t see it? Arrogance? Hubris? Tunnel vision?
It’s appalling to see the wreckage they leave in their wake, until and unless the family finds the right doctor, gets on the road to recovery and health. Even then, with some I see a form of PTSD, from the abuse they have taken prior to finding answers.
Sandy Berenbaum, LCSW, BCD