Yes or No – It’s a Choice
“It’s my job to ask. It’s your job to say no.” I learned that essential life teaching from a local television reporter who asked my boss to set up an interview after a tragic accident. He went on to explain, “I really don’t want to do this story, but if I refuse to ask you, I could get fired. If you say ‘no,’ we’re both off the hook.”
That interaction early in my school public relations career provided a frame for the many years ahead of interacting with the media. I would help as much as I could, and there was a time to say “no” if it meant putting staffs’ and students’ health and safety first.
I have been less successful with this practice of “no” in my personal life. So, it was probably no coincidence that the decades-old incident came to mind as soon as I woke the other morning. The first calendar item was an appointment with the cataract doctor at Kaiser to schedule my surgery. I was struggling to picture a free week where this would be possible. When could I ask someone for the long ride down to Lone Tree and then set aside enough time without driving for my recovery?
“Wait a minute. You’re retired,” I thought. But when I looked at the calendar, it was filled with trips with grandkids, transporting kids to and from summer camps, attending volunteer meetings and events, facilitating groups, getting ready to teach a class. The list went on. I recognized all the things on my calendar this summer were choices I had made. There were things I wanted to do; many I was eager to do. And others were obligations that I grudgingly accepted because no one else would step up.
Yes, I’ve gotten better over the years. I don’t always raise my hand first. I acknowledge that I can only do so many things in a day. I prioritize – family first. It’s been a giant step forward for me. And yet, sometimes I am so busy pleasing others that I don’t think about my own needs. What does Marilyn want?
Did I say “yes” because I truly want to bake that cake, attend that event, write that press release? Or did I say “yes” because I was flattered by the request, felt an obligation, didn’t take the time to recognize I had a choice? Was my “yes” a result of not wanting to disappoint a grandchild, a friend or a colleague? Or was it that I couldn’t bear that someone might think less of me? Or I couldn’t risk losing the feeling of being needed or important?
Perhaps it was because saying “no” has always been so difficult. Refusing a request causes a painful visceral reaction. It gets me in the gut as my stomach cramps; my shoulders lift toward my ears; my faces flushes; and my jaw tightens.
In Mussar, we talk a lot about the bechirah (choice) point. It’s different for everyone at different times. It might be whether to take that second helping of brisket or whether to stay silent rather than react in anger. For me, so often the choice point is when to agree to a task and when to decline.
Maybe, as with other choices, I can take the first step of being mindful and ask myself some questions: Do I have the time and energy to do this? Is it something I want to do and why? Am I doing it resentfully or freely? Will I feel put upon or grateful about doing this favor? If I can address these questions honestly, it will be easier to know when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”
So, the next time you need my help, please ask. (It’s your job). I’ll probably say “yes,” willingly, maybe even with zerizut (enthusiasm.) And if I say “no,” (my job) hopefully it’s because I considered the request carefully rather than having a knee-jerk reaction that I might later regret, or even worse, resent. Either way, I hope my answer is made thoughtfully, with loving-kindness to myself as well as to the one asking the favor.