I once dated a man who every time he began to give unsolicited advice, would cringe and quickly say, “I’m sorry, I don’t want to ‘should’ you.” At the time, I didn’t see should as a harmful word and would quickly reply “Oh you have nothing to apologize for.”
Now, years later, after journeying with a handful of directees and mentees, an underlying narrative many struggle with is the ‘should’s of others, themselves, and culture (real or perceived). A should can be a terrible hindrance to people listening for the still quiet voice of the Spirit. The should often arises in direction when a directee shares some God wisdom that opens something new for her (spiritually, theology, perspective on life, etc.). She quickly brings up the should, as an argument against the new discovery. In direction training we call these ‘counter-movements’ and it’s a form of self-protection. Not only can it be a form of hiding, it can also be a way to inflict or re-live shame. The should seems always to be painful for the directee.
So, what is a should? It is removed from the person’s particular God-given personality and gifts. It may come from wisdom or a discipline that works for one person, but when applied to another, feels forced. It can, at times, presuppose that the ‘should-er’ is more in tune with the Spirit/wisdom than the ‘should-ee,’ when in reality “every human soul has a certain latent capacity for God” (Underhill, The Mystics of the Church). Many shoulds are offered in love, but often reinforce a less graced path of formation. Shoulds differs from Spirit-inspired invitation to obedience or an intervention from a trusted relationship. A few examples of how I see the differentiation between the three:
In college, an on–campus ministry leader said I shouldn’t date my Christian boyfriend because at 19 I didn’t have a clear mission or vision for why I was dating him. I ignored her, and we dated for three years. I learned how to love and respect another being, he challenged my limited theology and politics, and we both encouraged and named each others’ gifts and ministries.
Last month, my anxiety was high (again). During a work staff meeting prayer, I felt myself calmed instantly. Through discussing this with my therapist, I was inspired to attend morning prayer every morning at Grace Cathedral next to my office. Some mornings I am tempted to ditch prayer to attack my to do list 20 minutes earlier, but I go, trusting that this season I must prioritize self-care.
Four years ago, I was in a bad way: experiencing a lot of self-loathing and emotional volatility. Sitting at the kitchen table with my friend Lauren, she quietly and firmly told me that I needed therapy. We cried. I couldn’t have brought myself to that realization without her intervention. The intervention was rooted in my best interests and felt like wisdom when I heard her speak it.
The best way to identify the should vs. an invitation to obedience or intervention is taking it to God and the specific way you seek discernment. For me, I sense God’s wisdom in my gut. I know a should when I feel it: a tightening of the chest, a dropping of the stomach. It feels like a turn away rather than a turn towards. It feels like an escape from the new or unknown that terrifies me. It leans on black and white, for fear that I’ll make a mistake navigating the grey. I hear it clearly in my directees’ shares. They use the word should vs. “I want to”. Should is a reluctant word. Another tool for discerning the should is checking in with the trusted relationships: those in my corner, those fighting for their own wholeness, those who would want the best for me even if it goes against their particular outlook or ideology.
A should can also come from within, distilled from the narratives we perceive around us (I hear this is particularly difficult for mothers and all the strong opinions/blogs on parenting). There are ways I should myself as a sort of quick-fix to holiness — ignoring that I see it as a counter-movement in my directees, I am the exception to the rule. As I review notes from my spiritual direction supervisor (similar to the supervision therapists receive), the word “judgment” is peppered about the page, and I wonder if it’s as painful for her to witness my shoulds as it is for me to witness my directees’. Other times I should my current self with past self ideologies or practices. This discipline worked for my at 25, so why isn’t it working for me at almost 30? Am I less holy or intentional now? This internal conversation of mine ignores the reality that “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” wisdom from Ecclesiastes. Each of us are dynamic and part of growth and development is moving through the different seasons and stages of life. So I can’t handle a truly unplugged 24–hour Sabbath right now because of my anxiety — I am enjoying the weekday morning prayer gathering at Grace Cathedral and the Sunday worship at St. Gregory’s. This is what God has for me right now: leaning into the communal and liturgical. Receiving rather than giving.
There are ways I try to respond to the shoulds as a spiritual director. They are seemingly simple but feel difficult to do: be quiet, listen well, ask clarifying (not leading) questions, and mirror the exact language of the directee. It is in allowing space for her and God to look at her own words that she can begin to shift through and determine what are the shoulds, the divine invitations to obedience, or loving interventions from trusted relationships.
Watching the internal struggle with the should in direction session is painful to watch. I get tempted to add my own should to my directee’s already exhaustive pile, as a well-intended quick fix… that ultimately would add further to her confusion. But in only a year or so of practicing direction and keeping my shoulds (mostly) to myself, I have witnessed the movements each directee has made toward the holy in her life. I see the gentle tugging of the divine in each directee’s resilience to the should and gradual growth despite it. I sense a slow reflecting on and peeling back of the should as a necessary part of the inner journey. The best things are worth fighting for, as the cliché goes. So I hold this hope in each session, bite my tongue, and trust God and the directee to sort the shoulds.