April 19

Can’t vs Won’t

April 19, 2017

Marriage

Tara called me in a state of considerable agitation. “I’ve been doing my best to live Real Love for two years now, but Max (her husband) hasn’t changed a bit. He hasn’t shown any interest in learning anything about Real Love, and he isn’t even receptive to the love I give him. He stays away from home all hours of the night and spends no time with me or the kids. It’s like he’s not here.”

“I know you’ve really tried,” I said, “and his resistance has been painful for you. I’ve come to know him fairly well, and he just can’t overcome his fear enough to take any risks. He can’t trust anybody.”

“But it’s not that he CAN’T,” she said. “He knows how to do this. I’ve taught him. You’ve taught him. I’ve begged him to help us be a real family. He just WON’T try.”

When we see someone frozen in place, resisting all efforts to help them along—especially when that person is close to us—it’s tempting to say that they simply will not try. After all, they’ve been taught how to be happier. They can see other people who are happier with the effects of Real Love. So why won’t THEY try as well?

But we really can’t know everything about anybody. We can’t know everything about their DNA, their epigenome, their divinely-given gifts, their entire upbringing, and everything else that contributes to who we all are. Without that complete knowledge, we can’t know how profoundly their pain and fear affect their judgments and abilities. We can’t know for certain whether any given person CAN’T move forward in a particular direction, or whether they do have the ability to move but simply WON’T.

So first, we can’t really know what people are capable of. Second, my experience is that if people truly can do the right thing, they will, with no exceptions I can identify for certain. Third, in the end does it really make a difference whether someone can’t or won’t make a given choice? Let’s assume that Tara is right, and that Max can embrace Real Love, but he won’t do it. If he chooses NOT to do it, then effectively he can’t, can he? His negative choice makes the positive one impossible. If I choose not to practice the piano, for example, then I can’t play the piano.

Finally, whether Max can’t or won’t choose love for himself and his family, what he needs is to be loved, by Tara and others. If Max continues to choose inaction, however, then Tara can love him but choose not to continue with him as a partner. To illustrate more starkly Tara’s choice, if you know someone who regularly drives drunk, you don’t care whether they can’t or won’t stop drinking. Either way, you still wouldn’t allow them to drive you anywhere.

It’s a waste of our time and effort to assess can’t vs won’t. We’re not wise enough to make the determination, and it rarely changes our best response to any situation or person.

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