I’ve been saying “no” a lot lately. It is getting kind of wearisome, like taking a gaggle of kindergartners through a souvenir shop. Only the person I am saying “no” to is me.
Yes is a word for the impulsive young.
Yes comes easily in youth, for better or worse.
Yes for staying up all night and double bacon cheeseburgers and mooning the car next to you.
No is an adult word from one’s earliest childhood, and it is generally resisted as a foreign intruder.
Maybe yes is why we who are adults can be so envious of youth, why we recall our youth with such nostalgia. As one grows older, slower and a bit wiser, the number of things one says no to grows exponentially.
I’m at the point now when everything from white flour to red meat are ending up on the “no” list. Going to a restaurant or passing through a food court feels a bit like dancing with the devil. He takes me to the top of the escalator and promises that all below me are mine to have if only I bow down and renounce healthfulness. And while the Lord didn’t appear to have a hard time saying no to all the kingdoms in the world, I’m having a heck of a time passing up Cinnabon.
And let’s not forget about saving for college payments or getting enough sleep or avoiding the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. There are lots of nos in middle age. Even Lent feels a bit like piling on, because between one’s doctor, one’s bank statement and one’s conscience, there is a lot of renunciation already.
But the truth is, we say no all the time in part because we are surrounded by temptations to say yes. We are inundated by marketing.
In our own homes, flawless people beckon to us from our magazines and our iPads, from televisions and catalogs.
Running errands or driving around town, we exist in a state of almost perpetually stimulated appetites: billboards and bus stops, radio ads and shop windows. The world shouts at us to say yes.
And we often give in. Psychologists have some very clever studies that show that if we say “no” one time, we more easily say “yes” the next.
We expend our reservoir of “no” and can’t muster it as easily to face down the next temptation. We say no to the pie and then yes to the cookie. We pass up the golf clubs or the dress and say yes to the wrench set or the blouse.
That we live in a world of temptation, of course, is nothing new for Catholics. There is a venerable Catholic principle called “custody of the eyes.” As commonly understood, it would be to avoid temptation to lascivious thoughts or actions by being discreet in where your gaze alights.
But in today’s hyper-materialistic world, I think it applies much more broadly. Catalogs and websites and menus can be just as tempting as porn or a singles bar.
And in this world of screaming invitations to say yes, think about the poor among us who face the same avalanche of temptations.
Once upon a time, the poor lived in the village and the king in the castle and rarely did the twain meet. Today, luxury is a constant taunt for those who possess little.
For me, it’s all about white flour and white sugar and my voluntary, if grudging, decision to take better care of myself. The discipline is slow in coming, and the temptations don’t go away.
The spiritual discipline of no, of avoiding material temptations for the sake of a greater yes, comes slowly too. Scripture is a reminder that behind every no there is a yes, and that what counts is not cholesterol, but how we treat the poor and how we live our faith.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.