In our culture, no is sometimes considered a dirty word, synonymous with negativity, rudeness or abruptness, especially if it’s not followed by a disclaimer, plausible excuse or explanation uttered in a dulcet tone. Yes is often considered positive, supportive, agreeable, embracing.
On the level of soul, however, no might be the most affirmative word a person can utter. I’m reading David Whyte’s The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. He writes (the italics are his emphasis, the bold is mine):
“If we have little idea of what we really want from our lives, or what a soulful approach to our work might mean, then often the only entrance we have into soul comes from the ability to say a firm no to those things we intuit lead to a loss of vitality. This way is traditionally known as the via negativa, or negative road, not to be confused with those contemporary deadly sins in the organization of negativity and pessimism. The via negativa is the discipline of saying no when we have as yet no clarity about those things to which we can say yes.”
Recently I attended a gathering where someone shared that, for a few years, they tried to get a job at a particular organization, even volunteering and interning. Eventually, upon receiving an offer, they realized that they no longer wanted it. Moreover, this person’s body froze at the thought of accepting it. To those looking at life from a purely practical or rational stance, this person might seem crazy to “throw out” a few years of effort and turn down paid employment in the midst of an economic downturn. But this person sensed, through the body’s refusal to go along with what had been the plan, that the soul needed to say no in order to protect itself, to hold out for the opportunity to which it can shout yes.
And the soul sometimes say yes to things that might surprise the rest of a person, such as when I realized, somewhat out of the blue, I wanted to do the Camino. The examples I listed here of no (walking away from a job offer) and yes (walking 500+ miles) are, if not big, more visible than some of the other decisions we make each day. But that doesn’t diminish the significance of seemingly smaller decisions that, over time, might build up the capacity to declare firmer “no”s and commit to larger “yes”es.
For example, saying yes to more creative or pleasurable time might require saying no to social engagements that are not enriching. Recently, a friend e-mailed, asking if I might go to an annual large party, with paid admission. I told her no, explaining that I had attended twice before, and both times the deafening noise had me fleeing after an hour; based on the invitation and marketing, I wasn’t convinced that this time would be different. I thought my no had been firm but, apparently, it was not. She suggested I volunteer at the event and get in free. Once I got clear that I had no interest in attending the gathering, whether I paid or not (or even if someone paid me!), it was much easier to say yes to a concert where, even though I went by myself, I had a lot of fun.
Saying yes to a good night’s rest might mean turning off electronic devices by a certain time, even if someone has just left a delightful comment on Facebook or sent a hilarious text. Every day, we choose no or yes, either consciously or by default, dozens if not hundreds of times; these moment-to-moment decisions are like modeling tools that slowly shape us.
Before I left for the Camino I said no to many of my possessions; it started with my utensils, then snowballed to include a large swath of my closet, nick-knacks and sundry items that I no longer needed, wanted or enjoyed. And, in order to keep my inbox from exploding during my trip, I unsubscribed from several e-mail newsletters and groups. They must not have been important since, today, I don’t recall which ones I’ve stopped receiving. Still, there is more to say no to. In recent weeks I’ve noticed that, despite my desire to arrive promptly or even early to appointments and classes, I haven’t been punctual, often because I’ve allowed myself to become distracted when I’m supposed to be leaving. Although the people involved haven’t minded when I call to say I’m running late, it feels like a self-betrayal. In 2013, at a minimum I will say no to this habit of trying to bend the laws of physics to arrive in fewer minutes than required. In the space created by not rushing, perhaps the things I’ll say yes to will quietly emerge.