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.