The Truth About Can’t


I can’t.

There it is.

No such word?  Ha!

Can’t.  Can’t. Can’t. Can’t. Can’t.

Somewhere right now, there’s a positive thinker reading this who would like to be able to set me straight.  That person would like to convince me of the importance of speaking positive words, of thinking positive thoughts.  They would explain to me that negative thoughts become self-fulfilling prophecies.

I understand the theory.

And yet, the simple truth is that can’t exists.  

There are physical truths.  I can’t be in two places at one time.  

There are intellectual truths.  As useless an exercise as it would be, I can’t calculate all the digits of pi.

There are spiritual truths.  I can’t make myself into a good person.  There has been one good person ever to walk this earth.  I am not Him.

Numerous other truths—things which can’t be done—will come to your mind as you contemplate my half-hearted stab at providing examples here.

I do know one other truth about can’t, as well:  

Frequently, the fact that a thing can’t be done today doesn’t mean that it can’t be done tomorrow.

Last night, I sat in the living room and proved this particular truth to myself.  I sat in a wooden chair with my silver French horn bell resting on my leg, as the Lovely Lady played the piano to accompany me.  Looking ahead in the piece we were working through, I noticed a high A-flat followed by a B-flat coming up in the notation.

This was the test.

Two months ago, I sat in that same chair and said aloud, “I can’t.  I can’t play anything higher than a G on my horn.”  

It was true then.  In fact, the G itself was a little iffy, truth be told.  Years of neglecting to practice have, sadly, impacted my ability to play the horn in the higher range expected of an advanced player.  Something needed to be done.

I have played that horn many hours since that day.  Purposely, I have exercised my lips to achieve a higher range—a range not accessible to me before.

But last night, I was ready to give it a shot.  The A-flat and B-flat were coming up in the music.  What would happen?

The A-flat was upon me.  I depressed the thumb trigger and the middle valve and tightened up the muscles around my lips.  Supported by my diaphragm, the air flowed through the mouthpiece, into the horn

Clear and in tune, the A-flat sounded.  Perfect! 


But now, the B-flat was there, too.  The trigger stayed where it was and the first valve went down as the middle came up. Still the air flowed.

Disaster!  No B-flat came out.  A sad (and very wrong) G sounded instead.  Ashamed, I continued on and finished up the piece.  The Lovely Lady, sitting on the embroidered piano bench cover, looked over at me, a little smile playing on her lips.

“The A-flat was nice.”

It wasn’t enough!  Stubbornly, I put the horn back up to my lips and pursing my lips, blew through the tubing.  The sequence of notes was right there on the page and in my fingers.  Right up to the A-flat I charged, and then on to the B-flat.  

There it was!  A high B-flat!

I’m not saying it was pretty.  It wasn’t even that clear.  But, it was a B-flat!  It was.

I can!

This little lesson holds true in many aspects of our human existence.

Today we can’t.  We don’t tell a lie when we admit it.  It doesn’t mean that we can’t achieve the goal in the future, if we work toward it.

Can’t today doesn’t always have to be can’t tomorrow.

Three years ago, I started to ride a bicycle.  Oh, I rode when I was younger.  Much younger.  That was for fun.  When I started again, it was for fitness.

I rode my bike six miles the first time.  Six miles!  

I was sore for a week.  

The next time I got on my bicycle, I rode two miles.

As I got stronger (and less sore), I rode eight, then ten miles.  Twelve miles was a trek.  I don’t want to talk about how slowly I rode.

I couldn’t ride any farther.

“Fifteen miles?  I can’t go that far!”

It wasn’t a lie.

But, that too changed.  These days, thirty-five mile rides aren’t all that unusual for me.  I ride almost twice the speed I did back then.

I’m not looking for a pat on the back.  You see, several of my friends ride what they call century rides a couple times a year.  One hundred miles at a time!

I can’t.  Really, I can’t.  Not today anyway.  Time will tell.

I may never be able to ride that distance.  There may actually be a physical limitation which keeps me from doing that.  And, folks who want to encourage me remind me of my friends, some of them older than I, who ride that distance regularly.

“They can do it.  Surely, you can too!”

Here’s what I’ve figured out about that:  

Their can’t is further down the road than mine.  For today, anyway.

Does it seem that I’m being foolish?  Is this much ado about nothing? French horns and bicycles—what difference do those make?

I do have a larger point.  Really.

I’m tired of hearing things called truth which just aren’t.  There are limitations.  There are laws which don’t change.  They haven’t from the beginning of time.

As nice as it sounds, the words I think I can repeated by a little train again and again will never overcome the laws of nature set into motion by the Creator.

sea-gull-765490_1920Regardless of the printed text in a book, or the scenes in a movie made way back in the seventies, a seagull can not fly into the rock face of a cliff and just reappear on the other side.

Too depressing?  Oh, don’t give up on me yet!  Hope is not lost.

You see, I do know the One who made everything that can be seen out of that which could not be seen.  (Romans 4:17)

Perhaps you do too. 

And, silly hypothetical paradoxes aside, can’t is a word which does not apply to the Creator of all we see and don’t see.

He can.

I said earlier, when talking about spiritual truth, that I can’t make myself good.  I can’t.

He can.  He will.  (Philippians 1:6)

It is a real word—can’t.  There are many situations in which its use is warranted.  And, quite a few where it is not.  I’m working to learn the difference where it applies to myself.  The reader might do well to study the matter, too.

But, I’m also learning, sometimes the hard way, not to tell God He can’t.

It may be just me, but it seems that the creature giving instructions to the Creator is just a trifle arrogant.  And, perhaps even completely futile.

He can.

He does.

He will.




If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.
(Martin Luther King Jr. ~ American minister/civil rights leader ~ 1929-1968)


I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
(Philippians 4:13 ~ NSRV






© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved. 

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