Recently, I told a life coach what I aim to achieve professionally in 2019. I figured she would ask me to write down all my goals and break them into details. To my surprise, she said, “No, first I want you to write down all the things you will say ‘No’ to over the course of the year.”
Quickly and proudly, I shared with her all the different projects I had elegantly said ‘No’ to over the past few months, despite the guilt and initial urge to say ‘Yes.’
I’m a disciplined woman. I can say ‘No,’ I thought.
After a meek acknowledgement of my discipline, she said, “Write down all the things you will say ‘No’ to and next to each write down why you won’t do them.”
Excuse me, Ms. Life Coach. Do you know how hard that is?
For every “No, because …” I tried to jot down, my mind responded with a series of “buts”: But … it’s easy for me; But … they really need me; But, it pays well; But, sometimes I enjoy that …” In a matter of seconds, the ‘No’s’ lost their force. And, with each ambivalent, blurry ‘No,’ I felt my ambitious goals deflating. The strength of the things I wanted to say ‘Yes’ to is contingent on the strength of the ‘No’s’ surrounding them.
Every affirmation is a denial. Every commitment is an act of self-restraint. Without the strength to say ‘No,’ we lack the ability to say ‘Yes.’ Yes to that book you always wanted to write. Yes to that business you wanted to launch. Every serious achievement in life requires a ‘Yes,’ for sure. But, surrounding that ‘Yes’ are multiple No’s to support it. Otherwise, your goal does not stand a chance.
The real world regularly reminds us there are things that need genuine commitment, a full-on yes. But, to carry through with that commitment – to be a good parent, a true friend, a great employee or boss, a responsible entrepreneur – involves saying ‘No’ to a hundred distractions and temptations. Every. Single. Day.
Much to the chagrin of many, Judaism’s 613 commandments are full of “Thou shall Nots.” More don’ts than dos; 365 to 248, in fact. Take Shabbat, for example. The only positive commandment is to sanctify the day; all others are negative. Don’t drive, don’t cook, don’t write. Yet, anyone who properly observes Shabbat will tell you it is a day of celebration, not self-denial. It’s a day of freedom, not enslavement. True, we don’t shop and cook on this day, but that is precisely what shapes a day that is so full and fulfilling for us. It’s a Yes, supported by many No’s.
This Jewish obsession with No goes counter to a culture that promotes ‘having it all,’ behind which lies the idea we can be, do, or have everything. Even if it’s not at once, at least it’s serially. Perhaps G-d knows His creations best. We don’t really want it all. We want to live meaningful, productive lives, connected to others and to our innermost selves.
The details of what that looks like varies for each and every one of us, because we are unique, and in turn. what G-d expects us to contribute to His world is unique. But, surely, just as He designed a way of life with a myriad of No’s supporting the Yes, we, too, should acknowledge the liberating power of just saying ‘No.’