The power of no

There are so many opportunities in life. A canvas of choices that spread out in front of us. And we have to make the most of it. With so much on offer, who am I to turn it down?

A lot of attention is sometimes given to our tendency to avoid commitment, to opt out of things rather than dive in. I’ve not checked, I’m not sure I want to, but I’m sure there is a self-help book called ‘the power of yes’. If not, someone will surely soon write it. There certainly is a film, and a better book, called ‘Yes Man’. It is about a guy who has become so withdrawn that he says no to everything, never takes a chance, always plays it safe, and therefore stays at home. Doing nothing. The film and the book vary by transatlantic and film director logic but the main character ends up committing to saying yes to everything, no matter what. And the point is that despite the craziness that ensues, life is a lot more fun for his deciding to say yes.

Now I want to be contrary. I don’t think that the lesson we most need to learn is how to say yes more. I think we need to say no.

I went through a phase where I was frustrated by my introspection. I decided to take opportunities, to say yes, go do things I otherwise wouldn’t have done. And it was fun. I made some new friends. I went to a couple of unusual places. And part of that mentality has stuck. But part of it was always there.

Because that’s the thing. In some parts of life I always say yes and need no excuse to push the boat out, except a challenge and agree to ridiculous deadlines 17 minutes before I’m due to leave work for a week’s holiday. I have always enjoyed the sense of challenge of saying yes to things that push me outside of my comfort zone and force me to improve, and get better.

In my social life I’m much less likely to take the initiative, much less likely to push boundaries. I’m more reserved, more hesitated, altogether a whole lot less sure of myself. Perhaps that is why I’ve found it relatively easy to expound in this virtual parish what I would rarely share in person. Even though it has led to a remarkable amount of attention in my face to face world. I say no too easily in my social life. I find it too easy to find an excuse not to go to that party. Or to leave church early without talking to people. Or not to ask that girl out.

Yes I just went there. Because I don’t.

But I’m going to leave that there. And you can just deal with that.

Because that’s not the point I’m trying to make. The lesson I’ve learnt this week is the value of no.

I’ve been ill. I hate being ill. I browse netflix, I watch DVDs of Sharpe, I even contemplate a full week’s run of Come Dine With Me. I lay on the couch for 48 hours. And all the time my phone is buzzing with emails that I can’t answer with any coherence. I talk to colleagues with all the eloquence and clarity of an ogre. And I have to make some tough choices. Because as well as being ill, I’m off on holiday next week. So I have a very finite amount of time to do rather a lot of things.

And that means I have to say no. And on this occasion it meant saying no to one thing in particular. It was the one thing that I didn’t want to say no to. In fact it was really the wise counsel of my mother, still as helpful and necessary as ever, who swung the decision. I’d had an opportunity to do something today which I’d never done before. It would have been fun, it would have been scary, and it was the right thing at the right time and I really wanted to do it.

But I knew that saying no yesterday was the right decision.

Because sometimes we just have to stop.

And not worry about what it costs us. The chances that are missed by refusing to be sold the lie that this is the very thing that will make all others fade in comparison. That if we allow this opportunity to pass us by we will regret it for the rest of our lives.

We wont. I won’t. I don’t.

At the end of the day, what choices are really that critical. At what junctures in life does the decision to go down one path rather than another really affect the overall outcome.

I’m not saying there aren’t better and worse choices. I’m not saying that there isn’t such a thing as guidance from the divine which might indicate one route over another. But nor am I forgetting the redemptive nature of Christ.

The fact that he is in all things, that he is working in and through my very frailties, that he is working to redeem the creation that I inhabit and he has done it all that he may redeem me. That when I turn down something, he still remains. That when I walk away from him. He still remains. When I say no, both to the things that could distract me from doing what he calls me to do, and when I say no to his calling. In both cases he does not desert me.

So I was left wondering, what matters? What commitments and decisions would I not jettison? What do I hold to? For what is my yes so important that I would say no to so many other things?

And perhaps, just a little, it saddens me that there is little to which that applies. For too much of my life is a consumerist existence based on what I chose to think that I need. And when I turn to face it in the cool of the morning, I learn that saying no is sometimes the very thing that I must do.

Saying no is not the means to an end, to achieve space to otherwise fill. It is the means to a beginning. To a start of a life where we don’t accept the logic of the world. That we can let things pass us by. And the world will not collapse.

Failure is compulsory

The waiting, for whatever comes next. The hoping, for that which you dream of. The silence, when it does not appear. The anguish, when the hope starts to fade. The joy, when dreams turn to reality. The peace, when silence is a pleasure.

I’ve wondered why we can be so obsessed with achievement. Whether it is the hunt for money, for status, for a woman to wear on our arms. Whether it is in our family on the monopoly board, among our friends as we embellish to impress, or at work when we drive ourselves crazy to get ahead.

Does our affirmation come from what we achieve, or how others view us? And in the end does it all come down to the same thing? That we are judged by others on our achievements. It could be as simple as whether we are funny. Or if we got through the day at work without knocking over the tea.

But it drives us to distraction. This constant effort to impress. Often impress ourselves above all. To think that we have done something. To not feel like our existence is without meaning.

It distracts us from who we are. We allow ourselves to be defined by what we do well.

Here’s a thought: what if we got a whole lot better at failing?

At getting things gloriously and magnificently wrong. What if we embraced failure with the same enthusiasm with which we greet success? Getting it right can be so tiring, so demanding. The pressure to maintain an aura of invincibility. Yet we still try and pretend that failure doesn’t bother us, we try to shrug it off and move forward. Surely a thorough grappling with failure would not deny the pain that it can cause, the upset, the let downs, the cost.

We’re not to pursue failure out of some martyr complex, but we must address it because, and I hate to break this to you if it is news, but we are going to do it quite a lot.

When it all goes wrong and you want to run away from the world. When no one seems to care that the time you have spent has been wasted. When you summon up the guts to tell a girl you like her, and she turns you down. When the world falls from around your feet.

But not everything that does not go as we planned is a failure. There is pain, there is embarrassment and then there are the adventures in faith we take. The paths we tread even when we know not where they lead, when the outcome is vague, perplexing, daunting. I sometimes wonder if the lives we lead are the instruments of a capricious God, one who toys with us, playing games with our lives. Pushing us down roads that will lead to heartache and disappointment.

Failure is not only about learning lessons. Sometimes there seem none to learn.

Failure is not just about building emotional capacity. Sometimes the pain is too much to bear.

Failure is not the opposite to success. Sometimes it is the only option.

And it’s too often us who judge what success looks like. Perhaps we have a warped take on it all. Perhaps the greatest failures are the greatest achievers. After all, isn’t that written somewhere else?

For a little while I’ve played around with whether utilitarianism is consistent with Christianity (yes, I just brought some philosophy into this). Surely we all want what is best for the greatest number of people.

Except it assumes that we know what is best.

So here’s a thought to end with, is utilitarianism just the philosophy of delusions of grandeur? That we know what is best for the most. And this is worth whatever cost it requires.