I wonder if Nancy Reagan knew the gold mine she opened up when she coined the phrase, “Just say no,” and helped spread it ’round the nation.
Drugs. Sex. Alcohol. Peer pressure. Unwanted groping. Unnecessary bullying. Combat it all—in an idealistic world—with that one-punch word: No.
Thing is, why weren’t we ever taught how to say “no” in the other areas of our lives? Our adult lives, I mean.
You don’t say “no” to the boss. And you don’t say “no” to attendance requests at important networking events or dear friends’ parties or to invites to intellectually stimulating outings like museum visits, book readings, or trips to the theater. You don’t say “no” family that needs your help or friends who need your listening ear. You don’t say “no” to your love life. You don’t say “no” to health, exercise, daily body maintenance.
If you did, you’d be rude, unsupportive, anti-social, lazy, selfish, unhealthy.
But, really—where were the lessons on saying “no” to any of this? Did I miss the after-school special that covered the above situations?
I’m beginning to think so.
Especially considering, when I looked up at my mother through tears and hiccups last Thursday, this is what she told me: ”You don’t know how to say ‘no.’”
In my defense, mi madre, I think the world has more “yes” people than “no” people in it, largely because we are scared of the ramifications behind that two-lettered lump of negativity.
If we opt out, we miss out. If we decline, we regret what we could have accepted. If we say, “no, thanks,” we never know what we could have been oh so thankful for.
We please people when we say “yes,” while we disappoint with the word “no.” We find entertainment, round out our experiences, even shape our thinking, when we agree to an activity. We impress when we face a challenge, an uncomfortable situation, a potentially disastrous blind date, when we buck up and declare, “Yeah, sure, of course, I’ll do it! Count me in!”
“Yes” carries less guilt and angst, less after-thought and analysis.
“No” leaves you wondering. What if? Just maybe? Perhaps I could have if I’d just given it a try?
My mother listened to me ramble through this argument—her in the blue wing back chair, me rumpled and curled at her feet, like a child. My words sounded hollow as I said them aloud. Even I could hear the echo of indecision and exhaustion and frustration in my voice.
We sat silently then, for a minute, as I collected myself, as she watched me. And then she took my hand, and squeezed it, and leaned in close, and said, “The world won’t go to pieces if you say ‘no’ to something, baby girl. Just say no, and then—what do they tell you in yoga, eh?—let it go. And move on.”
I drove back north yesterday, the Pennsylvania countryside passing my window, then miles of Connecticut woods, and then Massachusetts’ hills and bare-limbed trees. I sped further and further away from my beloved parents, my sister, my nephews, toward another week of work and yoga and my life.
Behind me were my mother’s words. My childhood home, Stoneyway, sunlit in the late November afternoon. Crunching through the sugar maple’s crimson leaves with my giggling nephew. Laughing with my father. Eating fresh, home-cooked meals around the old kitchen table, in the belly of the house. Easing into the quiet, safe, comfortable arms of those who love me unconditionally.
I choked back a few tears, even as my eyes rolled at such dramatics. I squeezed the steering wheel, so tightly my knuckles hurt. My hips twinged, tight. The traffic bore down, relentless.
And then, the “Massachusetts Welcomes You!” sign.
And then, the Boston skyline.
The greatest advantage we have in this life is choice. Perhaps that’s the greatest success of that “Just say no” ad campaign. Behind that three-word message is the indirect meaning:
You have the choice to say “yes” or to say “no.” Choose wisely. Choose for you.
As I roared back into my city, a sudden, sharp reminder struck me: I chose this life, here. I wanted it, desperately. I fought for it and defended it and then reinforced it. Along the way, I healed my broken heart. I worked this broken body into new form. I let go. I let others in. I moved on.
So what if I have to brush up or, let’s face it, master my “no”-saying skills, now, a little delayed at nearly 29 years of age?
I choose a learning life.
Let the lesson begin.