Saying “No” in a Yes Culture


A new year and a new decade ahead deserves a moment’s pause in the light of the sun, a candle or a wood-stove. And pauses are not easy in our society. With a Starbuck’s on every corner and a local cafe in the middle of every block, we are all hyped up on caffeine. It whips us into action – makes us productive and spurns us on to make more money to buy more things which need bigger houses and storage units and basements and closets which requires a new mortgage and more money and…well, you get the picture.

Saying “no” is a hard thing to do in a “yes” culture. Living life as an avowed materialist in a consumer society takes willpower which many of us are just too tired to exercise. So often a “yes” is just, well, easier. “Yes, now let me get back to work.” “Yes, now let me get off the phone.” “Yes, now let me get to sleep.”

For me, saying “no” requires so much more inner strength. And anyone with trauma in their past or recent history will have impulse-control problems which make a “no” even more difficult to pull off. The advertising industry depends on this.

Jesus, the Buddha, Confucius, Mohamed, Isaiah – pick the one you like; they all faced decisions that required a “yes” or a “no.” And in this season of lengthening light, I notice that light plays a role too. What I can see – really see, will help my gut to process then feel my “yes” and my “no.” Rest helps too. I live in and write from a cliff on the edge of an island in the Salish Sea. Here the sun comes up late and goes down early and though some fight with the added darkness, I like the permission it gives me to say “no” to the caffeine and “yes” to the afternoon nap or to sleeping-in.

How do we find our “yes” and our “no”? How do we make the discerning decisions that keep us on our desired path and do not tempt us off our path? Because here’s the thing…saying “yes” to something delicious – a doughnut when diabetic, the wrong friendship, work when exhausted, a purchase on an over-extended credit card – saying “yes” to something delicious is so very tempting.

We want things, we humans do. We find life hard and so we reach for things to self-medicate. “I’m sad…I’ll say ‘yes’ to that drink.” “I’m lonely…I’ll say ‘yes’ to that new friendship.” “I’m frightened of uncertainty…I’ll say ‘yes’ to that event or job or partnership or exhibition or book contract.”

It’s all so tempting; the temptations I mean. The root word of “temptation” is “to feel” or “to try out” which makes one feel sometimes that our natural curiosity about living life is a greased skid towards sin. It sometimes feels like a rigged system – like playing poker in a room with no light and smirking God. One thing I notice is that in church circles, every time I ask someone – a parishioner, a vestry, a Bishop – what they feel, they tell me what they think. Feeling is vulnerable.

When I am at my best – rested, only moderately caffeinated, well-meditated – I find I like very much to “feel” and equally to “try out.” In other words, I like to say “yes.” But then there need be a time of discernment. Did what I just “felt” or “tried out” seem good and helpful to me or not? Note the “to me” part. Something right for another person might not be right for me. Or for me right now.

I just ended a friendship. This friend was right – is right- for other people…just not me. I said “no.” This is hard internal work to do well and kindly. I also just ended a very close relationship with doughnuts. I am a diabetic. I am saying “no.” This is also hard work for one so impulse-impaired as I am – one whose drive to work is past Whidbey Doughnuts and their AMAZING apple fritters. And last night I summoned up all my courage and chose to sleep rather than see a second movie on Netflix because I was aware that I was using the movie to anesthetize my fear of the dark just as I was aware that I was using the friendship to anesthetize my loneliness and the doughnut to anesthetize my hunger for more. More of anything…just more.

When I wrote Note to Self, it was in part because New Year’s Resolutions do not work past March. In the book I suggest the reader simply decide what is their “yes,” then write it down and then read a bit each day as, well, a Note to Self. When the book won the Gold Medallion Award I realized I may not be alone in wanting a more discerned and notated life.

That to which we say “no” is beautiful. It is hard to set aside. It may be right for others and often is. And hurray for them. But here is the hard thing; saying “no” requires grief and not only that, but it requires that we sit with that grief until we are done grieving. Because what we chose was beautiful or we would not have grabbed for it. The not-chosen friendship is beautiful…but for others. The doughnut is beautiful…but for others. The stuff in the on-line shopping basket is beautiful…but not for me. The extra glass of wine is beautiful…but not for me too late at night.

Some things can be simply set aside. Other things need to be set outside by the trash and still some other things need to be translated into warm heat in my wood-stove. A beautiful bit of wood becomes a beautiful bit of warmth.

The light of a lengthening day like the light of a candle or wood-stove will cast light into our darkness. It will invite the discerning pause. It will mid-wife our “yes” and nurse the pain of our “no.”

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