“Should” and “shouldn’t” is a softer version of “shalt” and “shalt not.” Religious people of every faith, and the irreligious too, all have a list of shalts and shalt nots. Thou shalt not murder. Thou shalt be tolerant. Thou shalt not cut in line. Thou shalt recycle. In theology, we categorize and call this type of speech “law.” We live in a world of law. Stop signs. Curbs. Speed limits. Turn signals. Seat belts. That just scratches the surface of law in the world of traffic. Every world is full of law. Business. School. Medicine. Restaurant. Religion. Neighborhood. Social media.
A few years ago, we were meandering around Del Amo mall and saw a public service kiosk delineating 15 rules in their code of conduct. Moses delivered Ten Commandments. Jesus summed them up into two. Del Amo expanded them into 15. This might be the difference between a “should” and a “shalt.” Maybe you need seven “shoulds” for every “shalt?” We think we are so tolerant, but have you ever felt more the crushing power of “should?” I live right next door to the church, and I’ve been wearing a trail between the two for nearly 15 years. My wife hung our face masks by the front door, but I still forgot to grab it on my “commute.” I was nearly to my destination when a very angry honker drove by shouting, “You should be wearing a mask!” Thank God I wasn’t wearing my clergy shirt. Where could I go with my shame?
The irony is that I am a big mask proponent. I haven’t honked or “should” shouted, but I’ve hardcore internally judged others who have rejected the mask. I have numerous masks. Many are personalized gifts from generous seamstresses at Trinity. But there on the corner of 6th and Broadway, I stood unmasked, exposed, judged, guilty.
The law is weird. Some of us hunker down and try our best to treat it seriously, and then one day we forget our mask and… well, you know. Others react to the law with rebellion. “You can’t tell me what to do!” Others respond by creatively finding a way around the law. Like the person with the face mask who keeps it right below their chin. Some of us are the self-nominated “should” police, honking our way around town, shame-posting our way around the San Pedro Facebook groups.
So what do we do with all this law? It would be dangerous to take down all the stop signs and deregulate all the copyright laws and make hand washing optional for medical professionals or food handlers. It is good, right, and salutary to wear a mask. Even Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the law. And I am not here to suggest abolishing the “shoulds.”
My problem, especially when the illusion of control is slipping quickly through my tense fingers, is that I become more attracted and then addicted to the voice of the law as a way to control myself and others. We flip out at our kids or spouse. We rage on the road. Our homes and neighborhoods and online persona become consumed with “should” and “shouldn’t.” It is the only voice we know. When it doesn’t quite do the trick, we intensify the voice.
There is another voice, and I hope we can hear it. Maybe we can even learn to speak it to each other. It is the voice called promise. It doesn’t abolish the law—it fulfills it. The law says, “You should” or “You shouldn’t.” Promise says, “I forgive you.” The law says, “Do” or “Don’t.” The promise says, “Done.” The law says, “Don’t forget to wear your mask!” The promise says, “Even if you forget, I will never forget you.” The law says, “Wash your hands.” The promise says, “I have washed your heart.” The law says, “You should behave. You should be woke. You should be careful.” The promise says, “I am with you always. I will never leave you nor forsake you. You are mine. Nothing can separate you from my love.” spt