Be Prepared! / Big Scout Project / Scouting

We “Try” to Keep Our Promises

This is the Junior Girl Scout Promise:

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.

If you old timers remember it differently, there’s no need to scratch your heads. It’s changed a good bit over the years, but that’s a post for another day.

Today, I’m focusing on one word that does not seem to have changed in these many years: try.

I never thought much about that word when I said it as a kid. I think I was lulled by the sing-songy cadence that the Promise took on when we said it aloud at the start of each troop meeting. In fact, our rendition put an unnatural em-PHA-sis on this word “try.”

But that little verb has really insinuated itself under my skin. Ponder:

When “try” is our primary verb in a promise–or any statement–do we immediately let ourselves off the hook? Do we give ourselves tacit permission to fail, or do less than we might?

I’ve thought a lot about this verb in the last 15 years, mostly while recalling the 35 years that preceded it and the countless times I excused my efforts with the words, “I tried.”

Believe me, I say this as non-judgmentally as possible, and I don’t beat up on myself about it. It’s just a statement of truth, and for most of the last 15 years I have “tried” to eliminate “try” from my vocabulary with varying amounts of success.

Thank Yoda for that. Or, more truthfully, thank an old coworker of mine who quoted Yoda to me after I’d “tried” to get something done: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Watch the master say it here:

That line from Star Wars had gone right over my head when I first saw the movie, but it stuck like glue the day it was pointed in my direction. It was a simple principle, a simple lens through which I might honestly assess almost any task big or small, in black or white. Do or do not. Do or do not. Don’t just try.

But then…

About two years ago, I was reintroduced to T.S. Eliot‘s Four Quartets in a lyric writing workshop conducted by Berkelee College of Music professor Pat Pattison. He specifically pointed to the passage in “East Coker, V,” below. You can jump to the bottom if you’re in a hurry, but it’s an important and beautiful read, and it’s especially vivid for those of us in the “middle years:”

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres*
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. **

Ain’t that something? Makes me ache every time I read it, but I fear Yoda might roll his eyes.

To me, Eliot’s simple, human conclusion sentence suggests that our job is to show up, be present, do our best and let the rest go. It has nothing to do with the measurements of success or completion. Or, perhaps in the parlance of Oprah: it’s not the destination–it’s the journey.

So… I am curious. Where do others stand on the whole “try” thing? Are you in the Yoda camp or the T.S. Eliot camp?


* French for “between two wars”

**I’ve added the em-PHA-sis on that last line, and you can read the Four Quartets online here.


4 thoughts on “We “Try” to Keep Our Promises

  1. Jean you made me open up a dusty old dictionary. I wanted to see where the word ‘try’ comes from and what the very first definision is. . . ‘Try’ originated in Middle English from Old French. First definition is “To test in order to determine strength, effect, worth, or desirablity.” (Webester’s New Riverside University Dictionary) I found that very interesting. With that definition in mind say your oath again. . . . I’ll wait . . . . . Changes the meaning, doesn’t it. As much as we might think that ‘try’ is a weak word it was not orgionally ment to be.

    That leads me to Yoda’s quote “Do or do not”. If you do not try you will not do. If you try and do not, you need to try again. Winning in life is the trying to do because without trying there is NO doing.

  2. Oh, and I forgot my favorite one!!!!!

    If you aren’t failing 90% of the time, you aren’t trying hard enough, which is often attributed to Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM.

    However, he for sure said: “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” And you can’t fail without trying.

    Take that, Jedi Master!

  3. Jean, this is something I’ve given a lot of thought to as well. While I am a fan of the “Do, or do not” tenet espoused by yoda, I also think there’s some oversimplification that can occur with “strict” adherence to this guiding principle.

    I think you are correct in your assertion that often people use the phrase “I tried” to describe token attempts, rather than earnest and wholehearted efforts, to accomplish something. And I think that was Yoda’s point, when he responded to Luke’s skeptical assertion that he would “try”. (OK, I must admit hear that I am quite the Star Wars aficianado, and phrases like “may the force be with you” regularly issue from my lips.) In fact, the mythos of Star Wars is much more present for me than the classical Greek, Roman, or British tales that underscore and inform this moden day struggle of man vs evil, and man vs. himself. And I think I am not alone in this condition….but that’s a discussion for another day. Yoda was simply telling Luke, if you are going to do this, DO it. Believe in yourself. Have confidence. Act from confidence and belief, because otherwise, your efforts will unlikely be successful. In fact, at the end of the scene, after Yoda lifts the X-wing fighter from the muck through congress with the force, Luke says “I don’t believe it!” To which Yoda responds, “That is why you failed.”

    I think Yoda’s admonition to Luke is only part of the picture, though. I think the essence of “try” is to literally sample things beyond our ken, to push the envelope, to get outside ourselves and our comfort zones. To learn something new. To try a new dish. To dip a big toe into something that had seems alien or incomprehensible. To forge new neuron pathways in the brains, just as we forge new paths in the world.

    I think, for me, the whole essence of “try” goes far beyond mastery of a specific task or topic; for me, “try” is the quintessential element of the human experience. How do I grow if I don’t do new things, if I don’t “seek out new life, new civilizations”?(OK, I couldn’t resist the Star Trek reference here.)

    The simple fact for me is, I get bored. I get bored with doing the same things, talking to the same people, eating the same foods, listening to the same music. And for me, boredom leads to the dark side. So, I try new things. And, like most people, when I try new things, I’m very unlikely to accomplish them the first time. The “try” is just the first step. Sometimes, that first step is enough to know. For me, I don’t like octopus. I tried it. I’m not going to try it again. But how do I know if I don’t try it? That’s the question that stalks me, that prods me, that inspires me.

    There are a number of other tenets that float around my head, generally in peaceful coexistence with the wisdom of Yoda. I’d like to share them here:

    “The hard is what makes it good. If it were easy, everyone would do it” – Spoken by Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan in “A League of their own”

    “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” – Japanese Proverb

    “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” – Folk Wisdom

    “Anything in life worth having is worth working for.” -Andrew Carnegie

    “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” -Friedrich Nietzche

    In closing, to me the opposite of trying is giving up. And to me, giving up is tantamount to death. So, I’ll “still be a tryin’ and a singin’ this song”.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!

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