On saying no

18 September 2015

I once, as a desperately serious teenager, filled out a version of the Bernard Pivot questionnaire. I suspect the majority of my answers were designed to reveal the kind of deeper nature I wanted to show rather than the raw truth itself, which might be why I don’t remember most of my answers. I remember one clearly, however, which means it was probably true, and probably still is. To the question, “What is your favorite word?” I answered: yes.

Yes is a lovely word. It’s brightness and warmth. It begins things. It opens doors. It personifies potential, and potential is the most inspiring force in the world to me. Yes also holds power because it often requires courage to say. It took me a long time to learn enough courage to say yes. Even after I earned the strength to say it easily, I never took it for granted.

Of course, the next question in the questionnaire after, “What is your favorite word?” is, “What word do you hate?” And, of course, my answer was no. How could it be otherwise? Having established the principles for which yes stands, I’m obligated to oppose their reverse, as represented by the abrupt, harsh limitation of no. What an awful word, no. It’s the exasperated refusal of an unempathetic parent, the frustrating prohibition from a shortsighted authority figure, the rejection by someone who doesn’t love or care or respect. Those who say no easily and frequently do not tend to be those among whom I find my people.

But when you create a story out of the binary of yes and no, with such a definitive hero and villain, you, the hapless protagonist, will eventually end caught between them. Because while I still prefer yes, and I still dislike no, the truth is that you can’t always say yes, time after time, year after year. The problem with always saying yes is that, if it works out, you’re going to be offered more and more to say yes to, and, logically, it will soon make itself a literally impossible practice to maintain. And, if it doesn’t work out, you’ll have a mess to fix—which, in itself, is a normal, healthy part of making mistakes, but incessant yes-saying can make the trouble pile up and distract you.

Without saying no, deliberately and judiciously, you’ll agree yourself right out of the ability to say yes.

I have been saying no more frequently than yes these days. Now, my yes carries weight. I make sure that when I say it, or don’t say it, it’s not because of fear, or convenience, or even desire, but rather because it’s the right thing for me to say at that time. After years of an exuberant, colorful relationship with my favorite word, I’ve finally learned it’s strongest when I more often leave the word unsaid.

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