Stopping the Should’ve-Could’ve-Would’ves

By Mark E. Smith

Imagine for a moment that you’re driving a car at 55mph on the highway, with other cars traveling around you, with twists and turns in the road ahead. And, in a split second decision, you decide that you’re done looking forward, and you’re only going to look backward – foot still on the accelerator, cars all around, and twists and turns in the road ahead. Maybe your family is in the car, and they’re pleading with you in horror to look forward; but, you continue only looking backward, with no discretion toward what’s in front of you.

What happens next?

At best, if your family can get control of the car, you’ll stop on the side of the road, going no where till you realize the importance of looking forward. Or, at worse, you’ll cause a devastating accident, destroying yourself and everyone around you.

Living with disability can be a lot like driving a car, where as long as we look forward, all is notably well. However, the minute we choose to only look backward in life – on what should’ve been, could’ve been, or would’ve been if we hadn’t been effected by disability – life stalls at best, crashes at worst.

A buddy of mine, who received a later-in-life disability, is sure that his life would’ve been perfect if it weren’t for disability. According to him, he would’ve been rich, famous, and in love, but disability has single-handedly ruined his life, and all he wishes is to go back in time and avoid the accident that paralyzed him.

In one of my more blunt moments, I responded to my buddy’s pity party at dinner one night by stating, “You weren’t rich, famous, and in love before your disability, and I know people with disabilities who are rich, famous, and in love – so, has it occurred to you that your disability isn’t the problem here? You’re so busy dwelling in the past and resenting your disability that you’re overlooking all of your potential in the present. Stop looking back, start looking forward, and you’ll finally get somewhere.”

Of course, all of us with disabilities could look back on our pasts, and have pity parties for ourselves, no matter if our disabilities resulted from birth, a later-in-life injury, or a progressive condition. We can all assert that we got the short end of the stick, that if it wasn’t for damn disabilities we should’ve, could’ve, would’ve had the best lives ever. In fact, the best pity-party hosts, like my friend, will tell you exactly how much better their lives would’ve been, scene by scene – and, they should know, as virtually all of their time is spent dwelling in it!

Yet, here’s the problem: When one dwells in the past, the present becomes null and the future void. See, we ultimately only find progress in the present, the only point in our lives that we can control – if not physically, at least emotionally and mentally. However, one aspect of our lives that we absolutely can’t control is our past – and when we get stuck forever trying to somehow control it, like wishing to go back and change it, of course it drives us into depression and destroys our lives. Again, we can’t steer a car forward by looking backward – we crash every time – and the same holds true for life.

The other part of the disability puzzle that keeps some from moving forward is when they insist, This isn’t how it was supposed to be. No, disability may not have been what we wanted, but it’s what we got, and insisting that this isn’t the way it was supposed to be is an entirely futile, looking-back state of mind that’s irrational, to say the least. In my own life, as a young child, I figured out that although my parents pointed to a medical error as the cause of my cerebral palsy, believing that my disability wasn’t supposed to be, it was what it was, and I had to get with the program, as is, and move forward in the present. We can tell ourselves till our last breaths that having a disability isn’t the way it was supposed to be, but it’s only effect is trapping us in a past that we can’t change. However, the minute we look forward, to the way life is, then we’re in control, able to pursue positive directions.

In one of my books, I extensively discuss that life is about change, and if we’re ever going to live successfully, we must embrace change, not fight it. After all, like disability itself, change often occurs no matter our ideals, and if we go with it, we grow, and if we fight it, we stagnate. What’s intriguing is that disability demands that we embrace change if we are to live successfully with it. In fact, have you ever noticed that the very terminology of our physical disabilities – developmental, injury, progressive – instructs us to live in the present, not the past, suggesting how to best address the changes that they bring to our lives? Take a look how they spell out that embracing change and living in the present are paths for success:

If you have a developmental disability, what should you emotionally do as a person? Develop!

If you have an injury-related disability, what should you emotionally do as a person? Heal!

If you have a progressive disability, what should you emotionally do as a person? Progress!

This realization of how disability-related terms are fitting directives on how to grow with change came to me when considering a friend of mine who, for a decade, has had a steadily-progressive disability. Yet, he’s seemingly no better at coping with it today than at diagnosis. Again, he’s one who’s clung to the should’ve-could’ve-would’ves of his past, only looking backward. And, it occurred to me that he literally hasn’t kept pace with the directives of his disability. As his disease has progressed, he’s refused to emotionally progress with it, and has stagnated as a person. Whenever he speaks of how increasingly depressing his life is, I want to exclaim, Obviously – and it’s that way because your disability is progressing, but you’re not! After 10 years, my friend simply hasn’t developed any coping skills, and he never will – that is, unless he stops living in the past, and moves into the present to address the true potentials in his life.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s not a grieving period to disability – there absolutely is. For those born with disabilities, the teenage years can raise why-me? questions. For those with later-in-life injuries, recovery can involve only-if? questions. And, for those with progressive disabilities, initial declines in abilities can usher in what-if? questions. However, we must soon move beyond the grief stages – that is, we can’t allow ourselves to only look backward and hold on to the past forever. At some point, if we’re to succeed with disability – and, more importantly, life – we must shut off the should’ve-could’ve-would’ves, stop dwelling in the past, embraces change, and lives in the present, fully addressing what is.

As an Australian acquaintance of mine put it, You’re disabled, mate – get over it, then get on with it, and quit your bellyaching! His words are a bit more frank than I would choose, but he gets at the point: Let us let go of the past, drop the should’ve-could’ve-would’ve thinking, and move forward in the present, where we don’t stagnate because of disability, but we develop, heal, and progress all the better for it – thriving with what is.


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

9 thoughts on “Stopping the Should’ve-Could’ve-Would’ves”

  1. your car analogy is amazing mark. as helen says, as always spot-on writing as always!

    I think another stumbling block is the stories of those people who successfully drove the car for miles and miles whilst only looking backwards and came out unhurt. Living with an illness from which many recover I am faced by many who cannot understand my lack of interest in star gazing and waiting for “when i’m better”. It didn’t make me or those around me happy, but living as I am now (changeable tho that is) is 😉

    oops minor rantage there. Off to finish the washing up instead of waffling more!

  2. Being one who had a disability thrust upon me suddenly and quite unexpectedly (Auto accident) midlife (42) I did the “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” for a time, as well as the “This isn’t how it was supposed to be”. I seriously thought that my whole life was over! Then I recalled something my Dad used to tell us as kids when we’d try the “it’s not fair” card. He’d say “life isn’t fair. Sometimes you just have to play the hand life dealt you” When I gave up the “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” attitude and started playing the hand life dealt me, I discovered that I could pull my life together and move on.

  3. Wonderful! I love your writing. This is absolutely true! My disability is due to a congenital condition that is only now at age 25 becoming disabling, and we all go through “why me?” But you’re completely right, we always have to look forward!

  4. Spot on! I agree with you one hundred percent. People can get stuck in the grieving process and never move on about any kind of loss. Loss of health is no exception.

  5. “When one dwells in the past, the present becomes null and the future void.”


    Life didn’t deal me the cards I expected. I re-created myself to suit what I found myself with. The only time shoulda/coulda/woulda comes into the picture is when I run into someone who knew me in HS and I have to explain why I haven’t achieved the goal they all expected.

    Being a disability activist uses a lot of the same skills, it just isn’t as impressive to old friends who don’t understand that some days just surviving is a challenge. Devin Starlanyl, who is both an MD and a patient, said “it’s a miracle you function at all” with a disabling condition; I’ve decided to be impressed that I am able to do as much as I do each day and not compare it to what I used to be able to do.

    Once I stopped beating myself up about meeting other people’s expectations, my health improved because I wasn’t pushing myself too far on a daily basis.

  6. About 20 years ago, there was a short-lived TV show, “Kay O’Brien, MD”. Kayo went running to her supervisor about something “That’s not right, that’s not fair!” and he responded “That’s right, it’s not fair.”

    That was fresh in my mind when I got my diagnosis. It’s not right and it’s not fair that “a good person” should wind up with this kind of karma, but life’s not fair.

    It took a while for me to figure out the “why me?” Everything I’ve done in life was to prepare me to be an activist; this is obviously where God intends for me to be at the moment, and when God wants me elsewhere, I’ll go into remission and/or an effective treatment will be found.

    Ironically — or maybe not — the confirmation verse I was given was something just to that effect, that I have to surrender my will to God. Maybe they weren’t issued randomly!

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