I Can Do Anything – Empowerment Gone Wrong

In 2012 my youngest son “graduated” from Junior High (grade 9 in Alberta). It’s not really a graduation, since that usually means you’re leaving that stage of life or education and moving on. But whatever…that’s what they call it. My wife and I dutifully attended the “grad” supper, during which a program was put on to celebrate the occasion. A classmate performed a song she wrote, around which the theme of evening was centered, something along the lines of “you can do anything.”

I grinned for the pictures, but inside my nerves jangled. Surely not due to such a positive message, you say. In fact, yes. Of course, on the surface, it sounds totally appropriate. Young people need to be reminded of their great potential. Anyone working with youth want them to aspire to something, to move forward in life and not get stuck in a rut. Not to chicken out from the thing that excites them, to be dissuaded because it’s too tough.

We’ve all heard or read the horror stories of dear young lives that have been told “you’ll never amount to anything,” by some miserable, small, cowardly adult in their life. Just the thought of that makes me recoil in disgust. So surely the message ought to be as far from that evil mantra as possible. Surely we ought to chant, “You can do anything,” to impressionable teens looking for direction and a framework for developing self-images.

But what does that message imply? That greatness – whatever that is – is within reach. That there are no limits. To not let anyone get in your way. For someone content with warm fuzzies, it strikes them as empowerment, but it’s not. It’s the incantation of a fantasy. It’s the encouragement to dream in detachment from real world realities.

I think it’s safe to say that most adults would be worried about a teenager clinging to their belief in Santa Claus, yet some seem prepared to coax another myth into their psyches. Yet how many adults believe the same thing for themselves? Yes, Donald Trump believes he can do anything, but he’s a special case. The rest of us with feet on the ground realize that there are limits to what we can do. My 5-year-old dream of being an astronaut was never going to materialize. Why? Because there are requirements that I could not, and cannot, meet. My eyesight, for instance. My anxious disposition would disqualify me at some point. But that did not make my future any less bright, any less meaningful. In fact, better than being able to do “anything,” is doing that “something” to which I am naturally gifted, the something to which my aptitudes and inclinations and mental “wiring” and experiences all point. Fortunately, there were enough signposts and counsellors and yes, limits, along the way to point me onto a path, not necessarily of least resistance, but a path on which my strengths could be amplified and my immaturity nurtured.

The year following the aforementioned grad, the band Hedley released a hit song called “Anything.” It boasted “I can do anything” [bad case of déjà vu for me]. And oh! did it boast. School, limits, caution? “Uh uh, f*ck that,” Jacob Hoggard wrote and sang on that track. At least we can say that Mr. Hoggard walked the talk. He lived what he preached. And – SURPRISE! – Jacob Hoggard has been arrested for sexual assault causing bodily harm and one count of sexual interference. Police are concerned there may be more victims. Apparently he could do anything including taking advantage of young girls.

So yes, I think we can ditch the dangerous mantra, and simultaneously do an even better job of empowering youth. Any level-headed band ready to take the challenge?

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