I Can't In Fact Do Anything I Set My Mind To (And That's OK)

Man in wheelchair looking at stairs
Man in wheelchair looking at stairs

I can't "do anything I set my mind to." Before you dismiss me as a cranky old cynic, hear me out. The idea that "you can do anything you set your mind to" is well intentioned. It's a staple in kindergarten classrooms and it's meant to make us feel good. Yet, this adage has always vaguely irked me. It has taken me many years to articulate just why, but as a 22-year-old aspiring adult who is not, in fact, good or even competent at everything, the words are finally coming to me.

The insinuation that being able to do "anything" is a simple matter of "putting your mind to it" ignores the very real structural and institutional barriers that exist in the world. It suggests that being unable to do a task is merely a product of not trying hard enough. At the most basic level, the "you can do anything" line ignores the fact that we are human beings, not Barbie and Ken dolls who can flawlessly perform in any role. We all have strengths and weaknesses and that is okay. That seems to me a much better lesson to teach children.

While the phrase "you can do anything you set your mind to" is actually problematic for anyone, my disability has given me much more to ponder on the subject. Living with cerebral palsy, I know that society is especially tempted to tell me that I can achieve "anything", so long as I grit my teeth and put my mind to it. Surely, you can walk a little further if you try, society says. The media loves the smiling child in the wheelchair who "never says can't" and applauds her for "not giving up." Well, I'm going to say something that may never get me on CNN, but is true nonetheless. The word "can't" is important. The word "can't" has power. The word "can't" belongs to you.

As a disabled person, this realization has not left me defeated, but instead, free to focus on that which I can do. Free to shape my life and my goals according to my needs. Free to accept that it is not necessary to be able "to do anything" so long as I am proud of the "something" I can do. Rejecting the notion that "I can do anything" has not irreparably damaged my self -esteem or trapped me in a pit of self-loathing. It has given me the tools to lead a happier life.

It has taught me to respect both the abilities and the limits of my disabled body. Knowing and accepting that sometimes, I really can't "walk a little further" has given me the independence of my wheelchair that is not at all a symbol of failure, but of power. In my chair, I can zip around without fear of falling. I can decide where I'm going and where I am not. I can honor my tired muscles when they tell me they need a rest and save my energy for the "something I can do." If I smile and set my mind to it, I cannot force the contracted muscles in my legs to make me ride a bike.

Even if I mustered a gargantuan burst of courage, a muscle would still rupture and send my patella flying into the neighbor's garden. Understanding this has not only kept me out of the emergency room, but has also allowed me to invest my time in activities better suited for me. I shudder to think of all the excellent books and movies I would have missed if I were still hung up on riding that bike... and shudder even more at the image of collecting what once was my kneecap from among the tulips.

I will never hang on the monkey bars, climb a tree, or build a house. If I try harder and set my mind to it, that won't change. Thus, finding rewarding things to do within my body's limits is an easy choice. A non-disabled woman, even one with the most determined spirit, knows that no amount of extraordinary courage will allow her to breathe underwater. It is not because she is not brave or she hasn't tried hard enough. It is because she is a human being, born with lungs and not gills. Similarly, as a disabled woman, my body was simply not designed to do certain things. Much like the non-disabled woman cannot be expected to curl up in a ball and lament her inability to breathe underwater, I will not call myself a quitter for never climbing that tree. Measuring my achievements according to the standards of someone without a disability does about as much good as holding the non-disabled woman to the standards of a fish.

A story that quickly comes to mind is one about my high school career quiz. I was instructed to sit at a computer and answer questions about my interest in various tasks. I couldn't help but laugh, as the quiz asked me to evaluate statements such as I would like to fight forest fires and I would like to be a stunt double. I mentioned the ridiculousness of these questions given that I can't even tie my shoelaces, and was told not to worry about if I could do them, just to think about if I would enjoy them. Generally speaking, my ability to do something without serious bodily injury or a sense of dismal failure is inextricably linked with my level of enjoyment. More importantly, evaluating my interest in an unrealistic goal wastes time that could have been spent honing the skills required to reach a goal tailored to my needs. What I needed in that moment was not "you can do anything" but instead, "you can do something, and whatever that something may be, it is valuable and worthy." I'm glad I found my way to that conclusion and realized that so many other opportunities to channel my talents exist, even if I can't be a stunt double. I am also glad that the community isn't counting on me to extinguish forest fires because that would just be frightening.

That being said, there are always boundaries to push. We have all done something in life that someone once believed we couldn't. I, too, have accomplished things someone once said were not possible. Occasionally, that someone was me. For example, I never believed I would go away to college. To my own surprise, I graduated from a school nearly 900 miles away from home and managed a circus of personal care assistants to help with my daily needs.

Indeed, history has been shaped by people doing things the world thought they couldn't. I have no doubt that one day; a pioneer will brave a field once thought of as "not for people with disabilities." But if that pioneer is sitting in a kindergarten class somewhere, she should be told of the battle before her. That big dreams and big change do not come easily. That we live in a world that tells disabled people they can do anything and paradoxically, with its staircases, inaccessible buses, and archaic prejudices makes it difficult to do even the things we must do to survive.

Sometimes, it's important to push the boundary and strive for something you thought was impossible. Other times, it's just as important to know that there are some things you can't do. Having the power to determine the difference is a right that belongs to us all. Especially as disabled people, we are celebrated if "the word can't is not in our vocabulary." But here's a secret: if it isn't, it should be. You can't "do anything you set your mind to." But you can do something- and whatever it is will be amazing.

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I "set my mind" to being a gymnast. It didn't go so well. Dang.

This post first appeared on The Squeaky Wheelchair.