I Can: This Is Not a Test

by Jennifer Paros 

You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.
— Maya Angelou

I had another test dream the other night. These kinds of dreams involve me trying to get somewhere in time to take a test for which I am unprepared. So, there is both stress regarding time and anticipated failure.  In this particular iteration I hurry to get to my old elementary school to take a science test, for which it now seems I am already late.

In an atypical moment of limited lucidity, while driving to my destination, I reflect upon what I am about to do.  Maybe it doesn’t really make sense.  After all, I haven’t attended any of the classes so the teacher won’t even know who I am.  And wouldn’t it be odd for an adult to come into a classroom, sit down with children, and take their test?  Brick by brick, my cognitive and analytical skills came to life and, after a while, Dream Me concluded it might make more sense to offer to help out and play with the kids rather than take their test.  This thought unleashed a surge of enthusiasm.  I am joyful! I no longer had to take the test – there was something better for me to do, something I actually wanted to do, and something I knew I could do.  I awoke victorious.  My dream self had cleverly changed the assignment.  No longer did I have to be evaluated; now I could just participate and enjoy.  

Many years ago when I started studying visual arts, I was scared.   The first life drawing class I took, I quit after an hour or so (I believe I escaped during a break).  Staring at the model, with a blank sheet of newsprint paper before me and a piece of charcoal clutched in my hand, I felt like this was a test I was already failing.  I thought there was so much I needed to know that I did not.  And the model, it seemed, in his physical reality, was the answer key against which my work would be checked and found lacking. 

In actuality, I had just given myself the wrong assignment.  I thought I had to show that I could do it. A better assignment would have been something I knew I could do like learn or make marks.  But I put myself under pressure and then proceeded to fall apart.  No matter how many tests I take, I can’t prove my worth because my worth, like all of ours, is an inherent and immeasurable truth.  And ability, whether developed or undeveloped in the moment, can grow; so its evaluation is of limited use, if any.  But I can learn.  I can also practice.  I can try. I can look; I can listen; I can wait and see.  There is always a lot I can do, even in the midst of something I cannot do. 

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.
— William James

Whether we acknowledge our seemingly small and basic abilities (often routinely ignored) or what we consider our impressive skills, we are affirming our capability.  I recently discovered that I can is a very practical, workable, non-backfiring affirmation when applied correctly.  As an experiment, any time I caught my mood dipping, I started thinking “I can ______” and then waited for the blank to fill itself in. What I found was momentary relief from an amorphous sense of defeat, an “ I can’t” I didn’t even realize was there. I can take a deep breath; I can write a sentence; I can show up; I can listen; I can take my time.[CW1]  It doesn’t take much to start turning around the feeling of powerlessness; the tiniest acknowledgements of any sort of personal ability instantly begin moving us in a better direction. 

Disempowering thoughts can become the hypnotic humming undertone of a day.  But if a thought isn’t making me feel strong and capable, it’s holding me back.  It’s useful to check and identify whether or not our thoughts are empowering.  At times I’ve found this a sobering process – often catching my thinking hovering around the habitual premise of I can’t or I might not be able to.

But there is no need to prove we can. We only need to remember it.  Good news: there’s no test after all.  The assignment has been changed; we can put our books, our projects, and our dreams back on our desks and return to learning.  And in doing so, free ourselves to enjoy and participate without having to prove anything.

Violet Bing

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website.