Three Life-Changing Words

In the film Parenthood, there is a scene where an exasperated Steve Martin, overwhelmed by the pressures and demands of his life both at work and at home, blurts out the line: “my whole life is have to.”

It’s very easy to relate to this sentiment – to feel weighed down and trapped by one’s life circumstances – even for those of us who have it pretty good. A dozen examples off the top of my head:

I have to get up early and go to work.
I have to care for my sick child.
I have to answer a ton of e-mails.
I have to look for a new job.
I have to wash the dishes.
I have to spend time with my family.
I have to shovel the snow/rake the leaves/mow the lawn/vacuum the house/clean the bathroom/do the laundry.
I have to pay my bills.
I have to work long hours, in order to pay my bills.
I have to do my homework.
I have to exercise.
I have to do my taxes (I had to make sure there was at least one timely one in there for all!).

A quick reframe: let’s suppose you have been dead for a year (or even a week). And let’s say that, while you are no longer a participant in life, you still have consciousness and the only thing you are actually able to do is watch other people here on Earth living their lives. Let’s get even trippier here (hey, it’s my blog post) and say that you are able to view your own life, as it is right now, from the grave or the great beyond or what have you. And you are watching yourself go through your day right now, lamenting much of it with feelings of have to. What perspective might the dead you have on the still-living you?

Might the dead you envy the living you?

Might the dead you shout out an urgent plea (unheard, of course) to the living you to wake up and realize that you are ALIVE?

Might the dead you have a different perspective on all of life’s “have to”s?

If given the chance, might the dead you gladly shoulder the burdens of “have to”s for the simple privilege of being alive again?

From the perspective of non-existence, might all of your “have to”s seem like “get to”s?

And herein lies the three (potentially) life-changing words promised in the title of this post:


What if you simply, silently started replacing “I have to” with “I get to”? This suggestion might sound, as it initially did to me, hopelessly pollyanna. “I get to wake up early, brave traffic, and spend the day at a job I hate(?!)” feels…forced, to say the least. But there are very practical benefits to suspending your doubt on this and giving it a shot. Consider how this one-word substitution might be a catalyst for a powerful shift in your outlook with these three subtle distinctions:

  1. “I have to” fosters feelings of powerlessness; “I get to” suggests that this is a choice (and, therefore, there might be other choices, or at least other choices about how to view the same situation). The latter opens the door for more creative thinking.
  2. “I have to” makes you feel resentful; “I get to” makes you feel fortunate. Not everyone gets to. Dead people, for example, definitely don’t get to.
  3. “I have to” repeatedly, over time, can lead to despair; “I get to” repeatedly, over time, cultivates gratitude. Which of these is likely to feel better? Serve you better?

Note that this is a practice. Just as with playing a musical instrument, one gets better at it with practice. The point, as I am wont to say, is “progress, not perfection”.  I, myself, am still very much a novice, but I am practicing.

You might argue (because, like me, you’re the arguing type) that there are just some things in life that, for whatever reason, we have no choice about – we have to do them – and they are absolutely no fun. Who wants to grieve the loss of a loved one? Suffer a horrible illness? Deal with profoundly difficult people? Do we get to do these things?

I would agree 100% that there is plenty in life that is outside of our control, and that, if given a choice, no one in his/her right mind would willingly sign up for. However, whatever the current situation you find yourself in may be, and however it came to be, it is the situation you are in. Its actuality can’t be denied. And so we “get to” both have the experience (even if we never would have chosen it) and decide how we will choose to respond to it.

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor (and groundbreaking psychiatrist) Viktor Frankl writes, with an inarguable degree of authority: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Another wonderful way he puts it in the same book: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Whatever we happen to be experiencing, we are one of only a very few (arguably the only one, really) having that exact experience in that moment. This makes it precious, in a way, even if it’s undesired or even horrific. The vast majority of humans who have ever lived on this planet are right now no longer living, and from that perspective any lived experience we encounter might be viewed as a gift, especially with the knowledge that it, as well as our life as a whole, is fleeting. Even if it turns out that I am reincarnated into some other form after I die, I will never again exist as this person I am right now in this moment in these very specific circumstances.

All that said, I myself would find it super challenging to view, say, intense nausea as a “gift”, but there is the possibility that at a later date I might be able to salvage some value from the experience, such as through a blog post!

Maybe the gift in your particular situation is not immediate or even at all apparent. In that case, you could say: “I get to have this experience which may have within it the seeds of some positive or creative fruit in the future, even if I can’t possibly know what that might be yet.” And this may very well be the best you – or anyone – can do in that situation. I think of Viktor Frankl having to endure around three years as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps, and losing all but one of his closest relatives in them. Could he have known then not only that he would survive, and even find happiness again, but that he would gift the world with his subsequent work, which included, among other things, Man’s Search for Meaning?

We can always curse the fates for our situation and suppress our power (however limited it might be) by succumbing to “I have to”…or we can use “I get to” as a means of contemplating possible silver linings, or even discovering hidden opportunities. In tough times, it’s still possible to use some version of “I get to” thinking, such as: “I get to experience this, and maybe I will emerge wiser, humbler, funnier(!), more compassionate, or more helpful to others in the future for having gone through it.”

One final note on “I get to”. We don’t have to limit our use of this phrase to just reframing seemingly unpleasant tasks in a beneficial, helpful, or productive way. We can also use it to celebrate all of the wonderful things we “get to” experience in this life – the precious people with whom we share intimate connections, Mother Nature’s endless awe-inspiring marvels, and music, for instance – and we can use those three life-changing words to consciously take these things in. “I get to” can help us make sure we are not taking the good and the beautiful for granted. They can increase our heartfelt gratitude for our amazing good fortune, and help us relish the privilege of being alive for as long as we get to be here.

And I, for one, am so glad I get to be here!

Special thanks to my friend Olivia for planting the “I get to” seed in my brain a while back and, in effect, inspiring this post.  🙂

This entry was posted in Philosophical Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Three Life-Changing Words

  1. says:

    great post!

    Rebeca Plantier
    CEO, Co-founder Fit to Inspire

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