Knowing No

Say yes or say no...

Peace is only found in yes.

The plain but powerful mantra was glowing – almost vibrating – off a photocopied page from some collection of pithy spiritual one-liners. I was beginning a retreat for busy people – professionals who needed a nudge in the direction of the divine. Yes, I thought. Yes is where I will find my peace. Yes is where my happiness rests. Yes will be my salvation.

I was, after all, a yes man. At the time, I worked with university student organizations and built a career around saying that single, simple word. Yes, of course I’ll be at the Mass you planned for this Saturday. Yes, of course I’ll sit in your group’s dunk tank, or let you throw pies in my face, or form a team to participate in a 12-hour stationary bike marathon. Yes, of course I’ll give you a second chance. Yes, of course I’ll turn the other way.

This perpetual yes-ing has continued. I left that job for another yes, a response to some deep question about the religious life. And wouldn’t you know it, after a few years away from full-time work, I’m at it again, this time at a startup college trying to meet the needs of young people who (by no fault of their own) face significant adversity in earning a higher education degree. Everything is new, and everyone seems to do everything. Most of the time, yes feels like the only option. The right option.

Why, then, does peace so often hide from me?

***

A friend invited me to a private conversation some years ago. We were living at a university in Denver, and on the day we sat down, the sun was shining brightly in the thin mile-high air, the mountainous horizon drawing my attention toward some unknown adventure. There were black bears and brown trout and wild blueberries deep in the woods of my mind’s eye. Before me, people were playing frisbee on an expansive lawn, and I longed for the feel of bristly July grass under my bare feet. A group I knew was off to Ft. Collins for the afternoon, no doubt seeking the bitter, piney taste of the latest issue of summer IPAs. Yet, there I was with him, my good friend, on a coated wire bench outside a campus dining hall.

He shared that he wanted a deeper friendship with me. He feared I was trying to be too many things to too many people, and that there might not be room for him. He thought that I was the kind of person who could offer him true companionship; he didn’t want to be just another person that I drank beer with a few times a year. I told him I agreed, and I was willing to commit to strengthening our bond.

I’ve never really made good on that yes, though. That was three and a half years ago.

***

A different friend called me in mid-December and asked if I could pull together some music for a New Year’s Eve prayer service. He called because he needed help. He called because I love music, and because he knew I had the capacity to do it. He called me because I say yes. Imagine our surprise, then, when I said no.

Disappointment swelled in his voice. We chatted for another minute and hung up. I floundered immediately. I wanted him to know that I could handle anything. I thought to call him back, apologize for abandoning him, and then agree to take the full weight of the task. As I searched for his number, I did schedule-gymnastics in my mind and found the time.

***

Some people seem to have 25 usable hours everyday. What I do in a week, they do in an afternoon. They never let anyone down, they can be all things to everyone, and they always finish the job. I’m coming to realize that I’m not one of these people. I can do a lot. But, I can’t do it all. I say yes joyfully but negligently, and while the intention is good, the results can be harmful. Things don’t get done, I get burned out, and people are left sitting on benches for years.

But still, the yes to my friend and his request for companionship followed me. Now he and and I are in regular communication; an old door is newly open, a growing desire to finally become closer to him, a chance to make good on the deal we struck all those years ago. My yes is drawing me back into a promise I made but couldn’t find the energy or honesty to keep.

And my other friend – the one with the music – he called me back. He told me he was grateful I said no, grateful that I knew what I couldn’t handle. He knew it was hard for me to turn him down. My no wouldn’t affect our friendship.  And somehow, in that no, I felt peace.

There is some amount of grief in every decision. Saying yes to one thing always means no to something else. Saying no may open doors, and saying yes may close them. I’m learning how to tell the difference. Peace can be found in yes, but only sometimes. At other times, the greatest peace I know can also be found in no.

-//-

The cover image, from Flickr user duncan c, can be found here.

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