Purpose: Just Say Yes

Purpose: Just Say Yes

           An MIT linguistics professor was lecturing his class. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.” A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

spend a good portion of my life fortified behind a wall of Nos, sticking out from my soul like quills from a porcupine. Even if I don’t speak them, people can sense the Nos bristling from me when I walk into a room. No, I’m too busy. No, I don’t see a clear benefit to that. No, that doesn’t line up exactly enough with my values. No, I don’t want to get too depleted. No, I’m not the right man for that. No, he would probably use the dollar to buy crack. No, I would probably fuck that up if I tried it. No, if I help she’ll only want more. As I walk down the street, running the gauntlet of all those who represent the needs of the world, I can sense that these quills have two points. One wards others away, defends me from the risk of Yes. The other point presses into my soul, tightening me, scarring me, shriveling me. I may use my kids and family as my excuse—I’ll save my life energy for those in my immediate circle, those I love. But my painful truth is, my quills of No bristle at home, too. No, I can’t make the game. No, you can’t stay up late. No, I can’t love you the way you want to be loved. No, I can’t be fully present for you.
Years ago, Nancy Reagan started her famous Just Say No campaign to drugs. In this, I’ve overachieved—I’ve learned to Just Say No by default to nearly everything: insurance salesmen, telemarketers, yes. But also needy street people, my dogs, unfamiliar options, my kids, friends, new experiences, even my partner Rebecca. I walk through life a shriveled Scrooge clutching my life-energy parsimoniously, doling it out carefully by the penny, and then regretting that I gave any away at all.

The result is that I live life moving backwards, my path determined more by what I refuse or avoid than what I affirm. The job I stay in is more determined by the possibilities I have refuted and rejected than what I have passionately chosen. The assembly of relationships I end up with is the consequence more of chance than choice, as if we have each backed into this corner together by accident. I amputate possibilities so routinely that I end up where I am, in a partial life that I haven’t chosen with intention.

I’m not talking here about the conscious, passionate, powerful No that I may use like a sword. This passionate No can be an indispensable part of a powerful Yes—more about that later. Here I’m talking about the No-program that boots up almost automatically when I open my eyes in the morning and runs in the background of my life all day. I’m talking about the No that is the vestige of my fear, shame, and inadequacy, that keeps me closed to anything new, that stops me from leaving home, that pinches off possibility, that stops me from striding towards risk, that isolates me from the world. I’m talking about the No that—in the name of safety—is the silent killer that stops me from living and loving passionately.

A yes-program is not the answer. In my opinion, this can be as toxic as the reflex no. Yes, I’ll do the job. Yes, I’ll fund-raise for the team, I’ll help you move the piano, I’ll co-chair the committee, I’ll re-sod the lawn, I’ll help you move the fieldstones. I become a yes-man, where the Yes is perfunctory, and I never truly decide where to put my energies. Then I get spread so thin that I don’t follow through, don’t show up completely, or leave the job unfinished. Or I take on so much that I become the lead sled dog, carrying the full weight, including the weight of the other dogs. I don’t trust that others might help, might sometimes carry me. Or I place a bet on every horse in the race, so I never really lose, but never really win. As a result, there is no form to my character—no one really knows who I am or what I want. And I may not know who I am or what I want, either.

My mission is a powerful sword that has always been buried in the stone of who I am. In the Arthur story, the sword comes out easily, with the flick of the wrist. But for some, (and I count myself among these) extracting the sword of mission is a slow process, needing a lot of patient work and ingenuity. Some of the alchemists spent their whole lives trying to extract precious metals from the dark matter, using thousands of different processes. But—fast or slow—if I can pull this sword out, my life suddenly has a point and I’m living on the cutting edge. Forming a mission and living it means saying Yes—consciously, passionately, with commitment. I know my purpose, and can stride towards it.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that when an enlightened person looks at flowers, he will also see through the flowers to the garbage that the flowers will become. And when he looks at garbage, he looks through the garbage to the flowers that might eventually grow from this waste. The sword has 2 edges. In living mission, I say a joyous and passionate Yes. But at the same time I say No in a way that defines me. The sword is the point of convergence of this Yes and No, and in the end, mysteriously, these two are the same, so that when I shout Yes, the echo comes back No, and when I shout No, the echo is an unmistakable Yes.

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