Sunday, December 26, 2004

Tyranny of the Should

Karen Horney (pronounced Horn-eye, please) was a brilliant German psychoanalyst, born in 1885 near Hamburg.  In 1906, she began her studies in medical school, in Berlin.  In 1932, she became a member of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis.  She published some fairly easy-to-read books on the subject of neurosis.  Possible the most influential was Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization (Amazon link).  Psychoanalysis has waned in popularity these days.   Despite that, her books are still in print.  This says something about the validity of her work. 

Dr. Horney coined the phrase, 'the tyranny of the should.'  For my purposes today, I will ignore the remainder of her biography, and pretend that all of the controversies pertaining to psychoanalysis don't exist.  (Both topics are moderately interesting, but others on the 'net have covered them in greater depth than I ever would.)

Consider the word, 'should.'  It is one of the true gemstones of the English language, because it can mean so many different things.  As a consequence of its inherent ambiguity, it is a favored word among preachers and politicians.  To illustrate, here is a usage note from the American Heritage Dictionary:
Usage Note: Like the rules governing the use of shall and will on which they are based, the traditional rules governing the use of should and would are largely ignored in modern American practice. Either should or would can now be used in the first person to express conditional futurity: If I had known that, I would (or somewhat more formally, should) have answered differently. But in the second and third persons only would is used: If he had known that, he would (not should) have answered differently.Would cannot always be substituted for should, however. Should is used in all three persons in a conditional clause: if I (or you or he) should decide to go. Should is also used in all three persons to express duty or obligation (the equivalent of ought to): I (or you or he) should go. On the other hand, would is used to express volition or promise: I agreed that I would do it. Either would or should is possible as an auxiliary with like, be inclined, be glad, prefer, and related verbs: I would (or should) like to call your attention to an oversight. Here would was acceptable on all levels to a large majority of the Usage Panel in an earlier survey and is more common in American usage than should. Should have is sometimes incorrectly written should of by writers who have mistaken the source of the spoken contraction should've. See Usage Note at if. See Usage Note at rather. See Usage Note at shall.
As far as I am concerned, what I "should do" depends upon the goals I have set for myself.  Not that this is entirely hedonistic; often one of my goals is to be considerate of my conspecifics, and to a lesser extent, to other creatures on this planet. 

If my primary goal is to impress others, then certainly I should  avoid spelling errors; if my goal is to relax and have a little fun, I shood not spend a lot of time proffreading. 

In order to avoid being tyrannized by a delightfully disingenuous six-letter word, I find it helpful to edit out the little beast from my inner dialog, and substitute the decidedly ungainly, but psychologically less damaging,phrase: "in consideration of my personal priorities, with due respect for the rights of others, I will consider..."

Example: 'I should wash the dishes tonight,' becomes 'I, in consideration of my personal priorities, with due respect for the rights of others, will consider washing the dishes tonight.'  Substitutions of this sort do require the burning of a bit more acetylcholine, but it pays off in the long run. 

Maybe instead of washing the dishes tonight, I might consider rereading Dr. Horney's book.  Although, in fact, I think someone else has it right now.