Anyone who has done even the most elementary of counseling (including most parents) knows the importance of words. Especially words like can’t, won’t, mistake, sorry, and I’ll try. Sometimes they express what the person means, at other times they express what the person wants you to think. Ask a child to pick up his toys and most parents won’t tolerate a “can’t,” “won’t, or “I’ll try.”
The same trait is evident in adults as well. People are often shocked, and rightly so, when someone acts in a way that is out of character. The typically mild-mannered individual who “loses it”; the person who “never would” who does.
There is a moment in C. S. Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” where the entire drama hangs on a single word—can’t.
“‘I say—where’s Edmund?’ There was a dreadful pause, and then everyone began asking ‘Who saw him last? How long has he been missing? Is he outside?’ and then all rushed to the door and looked out. The snow was falling thickly and steadily, the green ice of the pool had vanished under a thick white blanket, and from where the little house stood in the center of the dam you could hardly see either bank. Out they went, plunging well over their ankles into the soft new snow, and went round the house in every direction. ‘Edmund! Edmund!’ they called till they were hoarse. But the silently falling snow seemed to muffle their voices and there was not even an echo in answer. . .
“‘What on earth are we to do, Mr. Beaver?’ said Peter.
“‘Do?’ said Mr. Beaver, who was already putting on his snow-boots, ‘do? We must be off at once. We haven’t a moment to spare!’
“‘We’d better divide into four search parties,’ said Peter, ‘and all go in different directions. . . .’
“‘Search parties, Son of Adam?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘what for?’
“‘Why, to look for Edmund, of course!’
“‘There’s no point in looking for him,’ said Mr. Beaver.
“‘What do you mean?’ said Susan. ‘He can’t be far away yet. And we’ve got to find him. . . .’
“‘The reason there’s no use looking,’ said Mr. Beaver, ‘is that we know already where he’s gone!’ Everyone stared in amazement.
“‘Don’t you understand?’ said Mr. Beaver. ‘He’s gone to her, to the White Witch. He has betrayed us all.’
“‘Oh, surely—oh, really!’ said Susan; ‘he can’t have done that.’
“‘Can’t he?’ said Mr. Beaver, looking very hard at the three children, and everything they wanted to say died on their lips, for each felt suddenly quite certain inside that this was exactly what Edmund had done.”1
Next time you’re tempted to say “can’t,” take a moment to think. Really?
“Then the LORD God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’” – Genesis 3:13.
- C. S. Lewis “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” in The Essential C. S. Lewis by Lyle W. Dorsett (New York: Scribner; Reprint edition, 1996), 95.