Kim and I have found ourselves watching a lot of British movies and television lately, starting, I suppose, with Downton Abby – mainly because we have been watching a lot of movies and some of them happen to be British. I have a broad definition of “British,” one that includes Australia and New Zealand.
I have noticed, as we watched, how often a character says, “I can’t,” usually pronounced “cahn’t.” Most often, as I recall, this is said because of some social restriction rather than a physical limitation, such as “I can’t run a four-minute mile,” or “I can’t leap over tall buildings in a single bound.” No, in British movies it’s more likely, “I cahn’t wear that dress to the party,” “I cahn’t run away with you,” or even “I cahn’t marry you.” This makes me think of William Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles” where the restrictions are, primarily, self-imposed after being socially programmed.
I don’t notice these “I can’t”s [note punctuation triumph – a first for me] in American movies, stereotypically with our can-do optimism. That’s why we have super-heroes. And our heroes, at first glance, are directly tied to winning, rather than, say, sacrifice. They are heroes because of what they can do.
So, where do I stand on “I can’t”?
My “mind-forg’d manacles” seem to be tied to the old-fashioned and overlapping fields of love, duty, responsibility and commitment. I am bound by love, duty, responsibility and commitment to Kim, to my kids, stepkids and grandkids, and I can’t escape from these bonds because I don’t want to. I don’t experience these ties as “I can’t” experiences. As Kim would attest, I pretty much do what I want.
No, my “I can’t” experiences are a bit scattered.
· I can’t cure Kim’s cancer (though I can drive her to her monthly infusions and google “cancer fatigue”).
· I can’t help the love-life of my kids and grandkids (though I can sit next to Kim and nod when she is giving her wise advice).
· I can’t solve climate change (but I can turn off some lights, drive less, and vote).
· I can’t put on a shirt properly.
· I can’t open a cabinet without leaving a smudge on the wood.
· I can’t go back in time and get some do-overs (but I’m not sure that I want to).
· I can’t solve a Rubik’s cube.
· I can’t get no . . . satisfaction (not true, but I can’t help myself).
· I can’t be late (though this sounds more like a British “I can’t.”)
· I can’t bring back friends who have died (except through memories – mine and other people’s).
· I can’t find a missing key.
· I can’t be open and vulnerable, face-to-face.
· I can’t establish a relationship with my father (unless I go back in time, which I can’t).
· I can’t get our garage clean (though I may have to do it soon, or Kim will).
to name a few.
Missing from the list above are sentences that begin, “I can’t believe . . ..” There are so many amazing things going on in our world, from computers to sunrises, from Kim’s scones to classical guitar, from birdsongs to simple and surprising acts of kindness.
I have to admit that my background is vaguely British, as my father was Ontario-born and carried a British reserve that I inherited – though I suspect that Dad violated a few of his inner “I cant’s” over the course of his life. As have I, though I can’t tell you what they are.