Like most women I know, I am a woman who “does things.” Whether in the church, classroom, or community, I volunteer for activities and events because I enjoy doing them.
The problem with this (one of a few) is that once a woman gains a reputation of saying yes to things, even more requests for stepping up come her way. There is some good that comes with that, but also some bad. The requests begin to broaden in scope until they encompass unenjoyable, un-called-to things. They also begin to pile up, as two hours of help turn to three, then ten, and before you know it, a whole month has gone by. Sleep is lost, kids ignored, husbands relegated to last in line for attention. Nutrition and exercise fall to the wayside, and, perhaps, stress begins to manifest in physical ways.
Hence the market for self-help books teaching women the seemingly-easy skill of saying no. There are actually books—plural!—that contain hundreds of pages explaining how “no” is a word women shouldn’t be afraid to say. Those two little letters, that tiny package of a word, is truly a linguistic barrier to a happier, healthier life. If we women who “do” things could just learn no’s value, the books claim, we could better live into our actual calling, better love ourselves, our husbands, and our children. But wait! There’s more! We also wouldn’t lose friends, professional opportunities, important roles in the community, or any of those other things we’re afraid of losing should our yesses stop coming.
It isn’t just books: Pastors give this advice. Therapists. Friends. TV doctors with good intentions. And I agree with them: no-saying is a necessary skill for those of us living in a world with too high expectations and too few people to fill the roles we’ve spontaneously created then deemed essential.
But knowing intellectually that we should balance our yesses with a handful of nos is one thing; putting it into play is another.
It’s hard to step back and let something fail, go fallow, or not be done to our personal specifications. It’s even harder to let go of things that fulfill us, that intellectually stimulate us, that give us more to talk about over dinner than laundry and homework. But sometimes there are reasons we must say no, even if we’re left not just with more family and “me” time on our hands, but also with isolation, unpracticed talents, unstimulated minds, and deep sadness.
A couple of years ago I was really sick. Like go-to-the-hospital-bi-weekly sick. In that two-year season I posted on this blog a grand total of FOUR TIMES. I couldn’t even write while at home in my PJs sipping cocoa! I was living off prednisone and even with that most hated of the best loved drugs propping me up, I still just couldn’t go on being someone who “did” things.
So my husband and I decided it was time I just said no.
I emailed heads of boards and bowed out of roles. I spoke for hours, days, years it seems, with my (very supportive and understanding) pastor about church roles I could no longer fill. I let folks at my children’s school think I’d fallen off the edge of the world. I rejected clients. I just … stopped.
So I’ve been there, and you can trust me when I say that sometimes saying no is way, way harder than the overburdening of all the yesses combined.
Being out and about in the world I knew without being an integral part of how it ran was devastating. Not because of the loss of control, but because some of us, like me, were created to be in the ranks of those who do. I thrive on the yesses.
But then … it got easy.
Don’t get me wrong—it wasn’t like easy easy. Just … easier. Enjoyable, even. After the boredom and sadness passed, I started to feel better. I went off the prednisone. I had the energy to switch to a vegan diet (one of the top five best decisions I’ve ever made, by the way. Feel free to ask me about it.). I watched TV. Read books. Had an actual conversation with my husband. And then I was able to go off the immunosuppressant medication that kept me living off antibiotics.
Through this I learned that while the yesses might be life-giving, saying no can be lifesaving.
But I’m sad to say I learned another lesson as well.
I learned that the books are wrong. That our well-intentioned friends are wrong. That the TV-doctors and celebrities are wrong. Even our religious leaders are wrong.
The hard truth is that few people want to hear a no.
While many are sympathetic to the need to step back, many are not.
I was told I didn’t care about my church.
I stopped hearing from friends I’d made through shared volunteer activities.
I was excluded from certain conversations and actions I still wanted to be a part of.
I was stunned.
I readily admit it’s true we can’t always have the best of both worlds. In some roles you’re either in or out; there is no in between. It’s also true we can’t expect place holders: we snooze, we lose. And, of course, there’s the issue of reliability: will she or won’t she back out at the last minute?
Showing up is crucial—when one takes on a role or task it’s expected that she will perform it. How, especially after repeated cancellations, can others continue to rely on and trust those who no longer seem reliable? Likely they can trust that the intentions are good, but good intentions never cleaned the church kitchen, taught a Sunday School lesson, or edited a manuscript. You need an actual person for that.
So this isn’t a bright line issue.
There’s a burden on the chronically ill person to know her limitations and establish firm boundaries, even if those boundaries are disappointing. Being on a particular board may be something really relevant, important, and desired, but if all the meetings start at 8pm and you need to be asleep by 8:30pm, then not accepting the board position to begin with is essential.
There are other roles, however, that are more fluid. Roles someone can more easily step into on the fly if needed, roles that can be quickly understood and executed. Roles where a bit of delay won’t actually cause as much of an issue as others might like to think it will.
There is definitely nuance to the conversation.
But the point here isn’t to delve into each possible scenario, rather it’s to bring a hard truth to the surface for conversation: though we are taught, preached to, advised, and counseled that “no” is a viable and even respectable option, the response received to it does not always correlate with that position.
As I write this, I’m wondering if some will think this is a pity party or indictment of my various communities.
I reject both of those notions.
Let me say that I am writing this only because I hope that by bringing a real-life experience to light, those on the receiving end of “nos” may reflect on their own responsibilities as leaders and respond the way we’re taught to believe they will: sympathetically, warmly, and with understanding.
I also hope that by reading this, those who need to take a step back from some responsibilities can go into the process as better-informed decision makers. Are there things you will lose, perhaps long-term? Will some—even those you think of as friends—respond with criticism? Will people second guess you? And worse—will you begin to second guess yourself? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding … maybe.
All this begs the question: should you say no if you don’t feel up to a yes? Yes! And should you say yes if it may sometimes be dotted with nos? Well, yeah, I think you should.
My mentor, who has her own chronic health issues, explained it this way: we don’t forgo our work in this world because of illness. Yet we don’t necessarily need to live it out in times of flares or in ways that push us to the brink. Instead, we establish systems and supports that can be put into place as needed. That is one of the many things community is for, and part of successful ministry is learning to use the strengths of community wisely.
As hard as some things have been post-season-of-nos, it was worth it. I got a significant-if-limited portion of health back, reconnected with my family and myself, and made radical life changes that I will continue to reap the benefits of in the years to come. There is nothing more important than that, even ministry, as we cannot give of ourselves if there’s nothing left to give.