Can’t you or won’t you?

Several years ago I was working with a non-profit. We needed to do something different. We needed to shift our programming to serve our diverse group of students more effectively. I knew I had a lot to learn. I did my research and sought out the top experts on diversity and race that I could find. 

I found one conversation in particular eye-opening. One of the questions I was asking people when I met with them was “How do I engage more with people of color?” In this particular meeting I found myself thinking out loud “Well, I mean, I can’t just get up and move to North Minneapolis.” and “It’s not fair to my kids to just get up and start going to a church downtown. So what can I do?” 

She stopped me in my tracks. 

She said “Lisa, you need to acknowledge that it’s not that you can’t move to North Minneapolis or that you can’t go to a church downtown – it’s that you won’t do those things. You need to own that.” 

I’m sure I just sat there for several minutes with my mouth wide open. I have a strong personality and I am rarely challenged like that. (Just FYI, I welcome the challenge – I’ll respect you more for it.)

She was right. I could move to North Minneapolis. I could switch churches and go to a church downtown. It’s not that I couldn’t, I just wouldn’t. 

That conversation has stuck with me since we first talked and it’s been on constant repeat over the last few weeks. 

Especially this phrase “It’s not that you can’t, it’s that you won’t.

Let that phrase sink in for a minute. 

How would things be different, in all areas of our life, if we evaluated if we are using our can’ts as a shield for our won’ts?

Let me give you an example.

I can’t be nice to my sister, she has hurt me too badly. vs. I won’t be nice to my sister, she has hurt me too badly. 

That one small word changes it all. When we use the word can’t, we (most of the time; there are truly a few things we can’t do) are deferring any responsibility. We talk and act as if the choice is completely out of our control. But when we replace the world can’t with won’t, it changes everything. The word won’t implies full responsibility, we are actively making the choice not to do something. 

I think in our current discussion about race, we have often gotten the words can’t and won’t mixed up. 

I mentioned in my last blog that my initial response to the riots and protests was fear. I felt paralyzed. I started to tell myself “I can’t deal with this, it’s all too much.” “I can’t really do anything anyway, I don’t live in the city.” “I can’t talk any more about race than I already have. I’ve done the hard work.” 

But over the last week as I have been able to step back, I realized that I wasn’t using my can’ts properly. I was using my can’ts as a shield for my won’ts. It’s not that I couldn’t deal with it – I have dealt with really hard things in my life. I was choosing not to deal with what was happening around me. It’s not that I can’t do anything because I don’t live in the city, I wasn’t – I was choosing not to. It’s not that I can’t discuss race anymore, I wouldn’t – I was making the choice not to. 

We need to own and acknowledge if we are using our can’ts as a shield for our won’ts before we can get to an authentic place of can’s and will’s

In the context of the current racial tension and unrest, have you found yourself telling yourself there are things you just can’t do?

If so, write them down. Then replace your can’ts with won’ts. 

After reframing mine, my statements sounded like this…

“I won’t deal with this, it’s all too much.” “I won’t do anything anyway, I don’t live in the city.” “I won’t talk about race anymore.”

Yikes. That does not sit well with me. When I took a pause and took ownership of my words, I was surprised at what it revealed about my heart.  

It revealed that there was a part of me that didn’t want to engage with another hard thing. It revealed that I did feel overwhelmed by everything going on around me. It revealed that I had pride in my heart about the work I have already done. It revealed that I still have a lot of work to do.

Replacing your can’ts to won’ts may not change anything for you. Regardless, it’s worth digging into. Because if you are like me, there is a chance it might reveal something about the condition of your heart that is worth looking into. 

It’s worth looking into because lasting change does not come from passionate words, it comes from a pure heart. And I don’t know about you, but I want to be part of lasting change. 

I have so badly wanted to go back to that conversation I had with that woman and respond differently. If I could go back, this is how I would respond. “I can, but I won’t, move to North Minneapolis. I am called to our community. I feel like we are planted here for a reason. I can, but I won’t, go to a church downtown, unless I am called.”


I will go out of my way for my kids to have friends that are black and brown.

I will go introduce myself to my black neighbor at the end of my block and invite him to our next potluck.

I will commit to learning about the history of black oppression, especially in Minneapolis.

I will commit to always looking at my can’ts as won’ts, examine the state of my heart and make changes as needed. 

I will be part of lasting change. 

Because there is more,