In early April, in the midst of finishing my manuscript, I received a text from my city council president.

(I live on the ancestral and unceded lands of the Pocumtuck people in present-day Greenfield, MA, which with 18,000ish residents, is the biggest city in our rural county.)

She texted to let me know that my current precinct councilor was resigning. Did I want to do it?

(In my city, when a councilor resigns part way through their term, the current councilors vote on who will replace them. For those of you thinking that this is not the most democratic process, I agree.)

Immediately, I said no.

I have a full-time coaching practice, a fourteen-year-old, and plans to publish my book next year, all of which require a lot of work.

I’ve also witnessed how hard our councilors work, attending at least three long meetings per month (the one this week lasted from 6:30pm to midnight, which is not unusual). The job includes reading hundreds of pages of documents to prepare for meetings, responding to constituent concerns, and working to create change on issues they’re passionate about. It’s a part-time job with a $2000 per year stipend.

So I reached out to other progressives in my precinct, asking if they were interested.

They all said no.

Meanwhile, I finished my book and reflected on what decision most aligned with my values.

I was aware that because my council tends to evenly split conservative / progressive and my precinct tends to be more conservative if I said yes, I would have a genuine opportunity to shift my city in a positive direction.

And here’s where I arrived:

I believe in (some) shoulds.

Let me share some background:

When I was a junior in high school, I had the privilege of living for a year in the Netherlands as an exchange student and becoming fluent in Dutch (which I’ve mostly forgotten in the nearly 25 years since).

While in the Netherlands, I learned the Dutch word schuld, which means both debt and guilt. The word and its meaning are the same in German.

According to

“Some two thousand years Schuld was simply about a sort of obligation that you had toward someone. Like…bringing the smith a boar because he fixed your ax or giving the chieftain a barrel of ale because he won the last drinking competition.

We could say a Schuld was something that you should do for someone. 

And if you’re now like ‘Hmmm,  should and Schuld look really similar and they’re both about obligation… can that really be a coincidence,’ then you’re on the right track.  

Schuld is directly related to should. And that is especially visible when you look at the verb schulden, which is the German word for to owe.”

The Dutch (and German) word schuld is rooted in the same word (skulaną) as the English word should.

As a white descendent of settler-colonists living on stolen land in present-day “New England” with multiple proximities to power, I believe that I have a schuld: a debt, an obligation to work toward systemic change.

Because I’ve done a ton of work on myself since becoming an activist when I was eighteen (twenty-two years ago), my sense of schuld is less the unprocessed white guilt that lurks in the shadows and leads to martyrdom / white saviordom / abdicating responsibility.

Mostly, my sense of schuld offers me a sense of clarity and direction, sometimes even joy. Solidarity (from the French solidarité meaning mutual responsibility) is my spirituality.

(Eula Bliss does a beautiful job distinguishing the various ways white guilt can show up in her 2020 interview with Krista Tippett. I highly recommend this podcast.)

So what do I think about the dictum “don’t should yourself,” which has become so common in personal transformation circles?

I believe it’s an oversimplification.

Shoulds can arise from many places within us:

  • A sense of sacred obligation. I should pay reparations.
  • Internalized oppression. I should look a certain way.
  • Many people use the word should to talk about needs and desires. I should
  • Perhaps you’re thinking of other ways you or others should use the word.

The next time you use the word should, I invite you to pay attention.

Notice, pause, and ask yourself:

  • Where is this should arising from within me?
  • What do I really mean?

The more we discern between the various types of shoulds, the easier it is to get clear about what next steps life is calling us to take.

With that in mind, I said yes.

As a young activist, I focused on fighting US foreign policy and doing solidarity work in Latin America. After I graduated high school, I focused on more national issues, working with the hotel workers’ union. In the last several years, I’ve concluded that the most significant impact I can personally make is on a municipal level.

And so, after lots of contemplation and conversations, I sent a letter to my city council expressing my interest in being appointed.

On Wednesday night, my fellow city councilors voted me in. I immediately joined the meeting as a councilor.

How am I now?

Tired. Mystified. Fascinated. Trepidatious. Excited.

So many feelings.

And curious to hear what this conversation on shoulds and schuld brings up for you. What obligations do you have? How might this lens of schulds and shoulds inform how you show up?

I welcome you to share!

And in the meantime, sending you gratitude for reading and celebrating with me.

May you receive the support you need to show up in the ways your community is calling you to show up.


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