Saying “no”

One of the benefits of spending a year at a monastery, living under a rule of life, or following any regular disciple is that if you are open to it, the discipline will teach and form you, and in my experience, the most important thing that is taught is how to say “no.”

I’m not sure if anyone else has noticed, but we live in a productivity obsessed culture. We measure our national success in GDP and CPI, by the number of things we sell and buy, or just the number of things that were made. We measure our personal success in dollars, cars, houses, and all sorts of other products. We measure our spiritual lives by numbers of people in services, how much we pray, how many doctrines we have right, or the number of biblical verses we have memorized. We’re so obsessed with production that when we pray, we don’t ask “Am I meeting God in relationship?” Instead we ask, “Am I doing it right?”

It is so easy to want to make everyone happy, to try to be the person who gets it all done, to look like we’ve got it all together. But this is a lie. We can’t make everyone happy. We can’t get it all done. We most certainly do not have it all together. What we do have is the ability to offer ourselves in an open, honest, and vulnerable way, saying “yes” to what we have, and saying “no” to what we simply cannot give. But one might say, “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done!” to which I give the advice my spiritual director once gave me: “Ok. Then it doesn’t get done.”

When we give ourselves permission to say “no,” we give ourselves time to be, instead of do; we give ourselves time to be ourselves and to find ourselves, instead of trying to be that person. Again, we cannot give what we don’t have, be it time, be it resources, be it ability, or anything else. And if you can’t give yourself permission to let it go, I hereby give it you. You have all the permission you ever need to say “yes” or “no.”

One lessons I had to learn from saying “yes” too much was that I was taking up space that others who were better suited to the moment could have used. If I say “yes” to everything, folks will ask me to do things because they will get a “yes” even if there are better people out there to do the same work. Even if you are the best person, sometimes it’s better to let others have a chance at something we’ve always done. When we learn to say “no” we open up space for ourselves and others.

So in this new year and this new semester, say “no.” Just do it. Don’t obsess over producing all the time, don’t be the person who says “yes” to everything, relax and find yourself, and open space for others. In short, say “no.”

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