Adult: Pick up your shoes. I’ve told you three times, you need to clean up your room.
Teenager: I’m trying.
Adult: Yes, you’re very trying.
The first definition of trying is “difficult, annoying, hard to endure.” The conversation above is spot on, as it were. To try is to make an attempt or endeavor to do something. To make an effort. The depth and breadth of the effort is generally left open to interpretation by the listener. The word try comes from the old French, trier, or “sift.” It was virtually unknown before the 17th century and meant something very different to the English – it meant to adjust to a level surface by using a plane or other tool. In the general sense, it means an attempt to use or do an action. It is not a guarantee of success.
In most cases today, in North America, it is generally used to mean “you want me to do something for or with you, and I don’t really want to do it, but I’m going to tell you I will make an attempt because it will make you leave me alone.” Certainly, this is a pessimistic point of view, but, let’s face it – it’s generally true. According to Oxford word usage metrics, the word has increased in usage 10x in the last 50 years, generally in relation to attempting to do something rather than an archaic form of testing something.
The word is detestable. Like a reformed smoker, a person who has given up the word “trying” in favor of actually doing becomes irritated at every mention. Yes, me. “Are you coming to my party?” “I’ll try,” is tantamount to “I want to appease you but as for myself, I am not going to commit, and no, I probably won’t be there.” It smacks of falsehood, either to oneself or to the other, and it is disingenuous. We shun the words “yes” and “no” because we know so little about ourselves. I am a horrid pessimist about “I’ll try,” so this may sound more like a rant than an exploration. I hope you bear with me.
In a recent conversation with someone, this word came up in a context of not attending a regular study group. The woman has had several medical issues and has a difficult time remembering things. She’s not one to generally make excuses for herself and she’s worked through various adjustments in her life to make life work. Yet, she still settles into old habits, especially later in the day when she is tried and forgets to attend the study group. In this recent conversation, she said “I’ll try to commit to attend.”
Being the reformed “trying” person, the hairs on the back of my neck rose, the small muscles in my neck twitched, and I swallowed several times before answering. Slowly, calmly, I answered, “I hate that word, ‘try.'” I did my best to remain calm but I knew that the edge of irritation had escaped. “I’d rather you say that you can’t be there and if you show up, you show up. Or, be non-committal.” She did not understand what I was driving at because she wanted to please me. I couldn’t communicate clearly enough to her that I’d rather have her know herself and communicate accordingly rather than please me with an ‘I’ll try.’ We both went away slightly frustrated until a little later when she had digested it further and I was able to be clearer.
I know that when we say we will try, it means that we won’t do it. We are not committed enough to do it. Yet, we work hard to fool ourselves and others that we really will make an attempt but if anything gets in our way, it’s over, finished, done. There’s a certain sense of self that is lacking, a falsehood that taints our words when we’re not honest about how we feel or what we’ll do. We are not even able to come up with a “maybe,” and provide excuses. The first words generally blurted out are “I’ll try,” with rationalizations and excuses afterwards. The reformed “try” person knows all of this and that is why they hate it so much.
In the quest to be a better Freemason, this was brought to my attention early on. It was brought to the fore by two people, one another Freemason and one not. In both cases, the message was the same. Don’t tell me you’ll try something: either commit one way or another or stay silent. I’ve never been the silent type, so this took me a lot of trial and error to get right, especially for one who wants to please others. Little did I realize that by “trying” a great deal, I was more trying than pleasing. Clearly, the actions that I wanted to perform were to please others and not taking care to understand who I was, what my limitations were, and ultimately living in integrity. An older Freemason said to me once not that long ago, “stop trying to please others. You want everyone to like you.” This was a little frustrating, after having thought that I had surmounted the idea that I wanted to be everyone’s friend. What I didn’t see, or see the subtlety of, was the lack of concrete responses was my way of attempting to please others and not be honest with myself.
Being honest with yourself, sitting in that silence and listening to your “realest” thoughts, can be difficult. We believe we are far better than perhaps we really are. Listening to yourself can be ugly, and we don’t want others to discover our ugliness. We don’t want others to discover we might be lazy, xenophobic, tired, cranky, struggling, or desiring silence. We want to be accepted and loved. In general, though, we forget to treat ourselves with exactly the same kindness or honesty. It truly does start with ourselves.
From the 1934 Walley translation of the Tao De Ching,
To understand others is to have knowledge;
To understand oneself is to be illumined.
To conquer others needs strength;
To conquer oneself is harder still.
Freemasonry tells us the same thing, in so many different ways. We are reminded, in rituals and charges, that the thing we must strive to do is continue to learn, mostly about “the knowledge of yourself.” The trick is to figure out how to do this practically. As Lao Tzu said, “to conquer oneself is harder still.” Why? Because we fear the loss of other’s opinions, favorable judgements, and good will. We want others to like us, because that means we are good people. It’s living by the judgement of others and not the judgement of ourselves. Perhaps we don’t trust ourselves to make an honest assessment of our person, so we let others do it for us. Whatever reason that dishonesty was born within us, there is no reason it has to continue to reside there. In fact, it seems as soon as we find it, it’s probably a good idea to let it go. No rationalizations, no dishonesty, no dodging, no worries: own what you will not do, own what is not priority or what is not as important as other things and then move on. I guarantee the rest will move on as well. It’s far better to not try.
As Yoda so eloquently put it, “Do, or Do Not. There is no Try.” With this in mind, the world becomes a far simpler place to navigate, as do the recesses of our own hearts and minds. And don’t fear – good brothers will hold you to that task.