The motto of Norwich University, where I received an MA in Military History almost a decade ago, is “I will try.” The quote springs from the experience of Norwich founder Alden Partridge in the War of 1812, and Norwich University itself was founded to support the ideals that Partridge had for an egalitarian citizen soldier in opposition to the aristocratic officer class that was being promoted at West Point, and became the founder of the ROTC and the inspiration to other private military universities in the United States that blended an interest in engineering and the military arts, both of which I must admit to having some personal and academic interest in. This mindset of daring and stating one’s willingness to try in the absence of certainty that one will succeed can be contrasted with the pseudowisdom of Star Wars’ Yoda, who famously intoned that “Do or do not. There is no try.”
How are we to account for this opposite proverb situation? We know that Partridge’s saying that became Norwich’s motto expresses the willingness to dare to do that which is difficult in uncertain consequences. If you are an officer in war, or a manager of a division of a company, you may be given tasks to accomplish that are immensely difficult and whose success does not wholly depend on your own efforts but on circumstances beyond one’s control. One cannot say, in good faith, that one will succeed because one does not know that. But to honestly say “I will try” and to give an honest and intense effort to succeed is within the power of everyone to do and is certainly a response that should be respected by everyone. On the other hand, it is also true that I will try is sometimes used as a cop-out by those who do not want to put a great effort into something and have little confidence of its success. When we are talking about individual efforts to do something that is within one’s power, one does not accept mere trying, but only success. “I will try to behave” is not an acceptable statement from an unruly child. But “I will try to take that hill in the face of massive gunfire and artillery” is an acceptable statement because all one can promise is one’s most serious effort in such circumstances.
How do we know what is in our power and what is not? Our subjective understanding of our agency may vary widely based on our temperaments and personal experiences. Those people who have grown up in the shadow of abuse may think of themselves as having little personal agency. This problem of learned helplessness, as it is often called, can drastically damage the lives of people by leaving them paralyzed in the face of things that they have some influence or control over because of the traumatic experience of having been powerless to prevent the horrors inflicted upon them. On the other hand, a great deal of New Age thinking posits a belief in the “secret” law of attraction that states that one’s subjective feelings control what the universe sends our way and that if we believe strongly enough that we will prosper and succeed, the universe will bend around our subjective longings and desires. In between there are various beliefs in the existence of an objective reality that is outside of our subjective world that we can sometimes influence and sometimes control but must at all times recognize as being occasionally neutral to or even hostile to our plans and wishes. That objective reality can include the subjective feelings of others, so that I may desire to court a particular woman whose own feelings are quite contrary and antithetical to my own, and thus my own feelings may run counter to some aspect of objective reality that hinders my success in such endeavors.
How do we know whether to judge “I will try” as a statement of firm determination but a grimly realistic assessment of likelihood or as a cop-out to avoid putting forth effort? A great deal of that depends on context. If someone tells you “I will try” and they are a person who has the visible body language of determination and firmness, we will likely not see their statement as a sign of avoiding effort, but rather a realistic to pessimistic appraisal. If that appraisal is less optimistic than we would wish to be the case or that we believe to be the case, that is a different matter, and perhaps the person saying “I will try” would need to know information that might increase their confidence in the endeavor. On the other hand, if we see someone saying “I will try” with a total lack of confidence and body language that suggests indifference or a total lack of effort that will be involved in said trying, then one needs to challenge the level of effort that will be involved. Much of this depends, of course, on one’s understanding of body language, one’s understanding of the challenge level of the task that is to be assayed, and the reputation and past record of behavior of the person making the statement. Discernment, as is the case often, requires an understanding of such matters on a case by case basis rather than as a general rule.