Reclaiming “Can’t”

After my second dance class four or so years ago, I was chatting with a fellow student as we changed into our street shoes. “I don’t know why I can’t do this,” I said, referring to the few dance steps I’d been trying to learn.

Another woman (Rhett in Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare) said not to me, but to the teacher, “I hate people who say can’t.”

That seemed so rude to me, I was rendered speechless, but the woman I’d been talking to spoke up. “Pat didn’t say she wouldn’t try or that she’d never be able to do it but that she can’t do it now.” I smiled at her in gratitude, thanked her for sticking up for me, and said, “If I could understand why I can’t do the steps, maybe I’d be able to do them. I’m going to continue to try, of course, but at the moment, my feet won’t do what they’re supposed to.”

Rhett responded, “I can take you to a grocery store where you will see a lot of cans, but you won’t see a single can’t.”


Despite that inauspicious beginning, Rhett and I generally got along. But I was careful not to say “can’t” unless I was in a contrary mood, even though my feet often didn’t do what they were supposed to.

Now, though, I’m back to saying “can’t” because there are many things I can no longer do. And again, people (though not Rhett) are giving me a hard time for using the word.

Their attitude mystifies me. What difference could it possibly make to anyone if I say “can’t”?

Even if I refrained from saying “can’t,” it wouldn’t help. My left arm, wrist, and elbow seem normal enough for most things (which is why people often forget there are things I can’t do) but none of those parts work right. The  arm is twisted a bit, doesn’t reach areas of my body it used to be able to reach, such as my left shoulder, and doesn’t have a lot of strength. The elbow creaks and groans, and the fingers don’t close properly. (We’re not even talking pain here, simply range of motion.) I am working to improve all these areas, but there are physical limitations to what I will ever be able to do.

I am grateful for the things I can do and accepting of the things I can’t. In a way, saying “can’t” honors both what I can and cannot do because it speaks the truth. Truth is more important to me, and will always be more important to me than a fake positivity.

Besides, can’t is a perfectly respectable word despite its negative reputation. Sometimes it reflects a cry of frustration rather than refusal to try. Sometimes it’s a sign of momentary defeat and offers a respite from the stress of trying. And sometimes it’s the simple truth.

So, I’m reclaiming “can’t.”

And you can’t stop me.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

9 Responses to “Reclaiming “Can’t””

  1. Gail Plunkett Says:

    I’ve had similar thoughts about the idea that “it’s never too late.” In reality, it very well CAN become too late, through death, disability, changing states of mind, changing circumstances, dumb luck, shifting windows of opportunity, to name a few. I love your reference to fake positivity. I believe strongly that our thoughts have a profound effect on our life, but I also believe that we can’t choose or create everything that life brings to us (see above). And that training our thoughts to our benefit can be hard work! Sometimes telling someone to stop being so negative and to think positive is done in a way that places unearned blame squarely on that someone’s own shoulders. (Yes, I know it sometimes belongs there, but it can be a mistake to assume that it does.) It can be small minded, simplistic, and cruel, anything but useful. I’ve learned this from being on both sides of the conversation. To anyone I’ve hurt when I was on the “telling” side, I sincerely apologize. Please know that I’m trying to do better.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Good point about “it’s never too late.” Because you’re right — sometimes it is too late. Positivity taken to extremes seems negative — a denial of the truth. A person who understands what is possible, what is probable, and what is impossible can be more positive than someone who denies reality. It just dawned on me, if ever I had the inclination to call someone on their using the word can’t (which I never would), the logical question would be “Why can’t you?” Thank you for a very insightful and thought-provoing comment.

  2. Constance Says:

    I have a wrist that does not work right either. The bone slipped when the Dr. was changing the cast. To fix it, I have to have my wrist broken, and reset.

  3. Kathy Says:

    Exactly! I was thinking of that truth as I was reading. It’s also like acknowledging you’re too old to do something. People bristle at that but if you deny it, you live in denial and miss that part of your life’s journey. I don’t want to miss that moment when I acknowledge that some rides at Disney are no longer enjoyable for me at a certain age, for example. 🙂

    • Gail Plunkett Says:

      Yes! By acknowledging these types of realities, we open up the space to discover new and timely realities. For me, that is a powerful motivator to try to pay attention and know when it is time to let go and move on from this or that. The balance is to also pay attention and know what things to hold onto dearly, for life.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      People always say age is a state of mind and that positive thinking keeps us from aging, but it’s simply is not true. Either can help you feel better about yourself as you age, but some things, such as age itself, are beyond our ability to change. We can age better by exercising and eating right and being upbeat, but there is no getting around the fact that our bodies decline no matter what we do.

  4. LordBeariOfBow Says:

    Can’t say I didn’t enjoy this and get a smile or two, and why can’t we just stop nit picking and get on with our lives, or in my case whats left of it 😈

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