Just Say ‘No’

It is one of the shortest words in the English language and one of the first words we use. It may even be a word we discovered innately rather than learned. It may even be the first word a child uses before saying “Mommy’ or “Daddy.” Though it may be the first word we know, learn and use, we seem to shy away from using it as we get older, all in the name of being cooperative. The word was really made famous in the 1980s by First Lady Nancy Reagan. She told us all to say it, and she was the first First Lady to speak at the United Nations to tell the world to say it more often. The word is NO.  

When we try to consume all the YESes (commitments) on our plate, we often realize we have bitten off more than we can chew. Shutterstock photo

It is often used by itself for emphasis. Toddlers do seem to latch onto the word pretty quickly. As adults we need to recapture those days and go back to using it more often. Nancy Reagan had it right when she was asking all of us to JUST SAY NO. Unfortunately, we seem to limit the word to the world of intake. We are told to stop eating so much so as not to get obese. We are asked to stop using drugs so as not to get addicted. We are asked to stop drinking so as not to becoming alcoholic. But do we use the word enough for all the things that come our way and all the people who ask us to do this or that? We just keep saying YES to more.  

Most people in life want to be cooperative, friendly, good-natured and helpful. So, when asked to do something, we say YES. These replies build up in time until there is too much on our proverbial plate. Dieticians say a good way to lessen our food intake is to use a smaller plate. Instead of a dinner plate each evening, switch to a luncheon plate and fill that up. It will look full but will contain less. Can we do a version of that for the all things we get asked to do? The other day, I said NO to an invitation to attend a priests’ day of recollection. I do like going to those, but I looked at my calendar and thought I just couldn’t add one more thing to my week. At the same time, I felt relieved that, by saying NO, I did not add anything more, but also felt guilty for doing so.  

Though it is one of the first words we use as a toddler, we are quickly told not to use the word. As stubborn little three-year-olds, stomping our feet, throwing a mild tantrum, crossing our arms as we say NO to our parents, we are quickly reprimanded. Our parents tell us “Don’t’ say NO to me, young man.” We discover the word quickly but are quickly told to unlearn it. Apparently, we heed that lesson as time goes on. It is ingrained in us not to say NO and so we do not. Then, as time moves forward, in the spirit of being good natured and a nice guy we just say YES more than we should. In some ways it is easier to say YES so we don’t have to explain ourselves. When we say NO to a request, we tend to offer an explanation as to why we are saying NO, always feeling a need to justify our response or reply to the person who asks us, “Why not?” When we say YES, an explanation is not expected nor is one given because the person asking is pleased with the answer and does not question it. Why is it we feel we have to explain ourselves when we choose not to say YES and choose to say NO?  

saying No
Since we say YES in varied ways, maybe we need to learn to say NO in various ways. Maybe it is the actual two-letter word NO that we avoid because it seems unbecoming of a good, cooperative Christian. We need to learn guilt-free ways to say NO. Shutterstock photo

All these YESes become overwhelming. Our lives become chaotic as we balance all these things to which we have responded in the affirmative. We only have ourselves to blame. As we try to consume all these YESes on our plate, we realize we have bitten off more than we can chew. But we keep saying YES when asked if we want more helpings on our proverbial plate (aka: Can you help some more?). When does it stop? Like eating, it stops when we say “I cannot take another bite,” and we don’t.  

Another way that our plate gets another helping is the boomerang of delegated duties. Does it happen often that a staff member whom you have empowered to do a certain task or to care for a certain realm of ministry always seems to come back and place that task or ministry onto your plate (aka: desk). The staff member comes, supposedly asking for help and further direction on how to do something, and before you know it, you are doing the job you asked them to do. One way or the other, you said YES to their request to help and, instead of helping them do their job, you are doing their job for them when you originally asked them to do it for you. Somehow, somewhere within in their conversation with you, you needed to say, “No.” Sometimes, without explicitly saying Yes, we say it in other ways.  

Since we say Yes in varied ways, maybe we need to learn to say NO in various ways. Maybe it is the actual two-letter word NO that we avoid because it seems unbecoming of a good, cooperative Christian. We need to learn guilt-free ways to say NO. I have attempted through the years, when writing policy manuals and information packets, to use only positive words even when stating that something is forbidden. It is not easy to write manuals that dictate the Dos & Don’ts of what can occur at a wedding without stating “This is NOT allowed.”  

People seem to react to negative language because they feel it is taking away their freedom, so I try to couch the NO in lamb’s wool. It would be more efficient to JUST SAY NO. For example, if the policy of the parish is not to allow guest cantors/soloists for weddings, as only those on the parish list may be used, it would be easier to say “No guest soloists or cantors may sing at the wedding.” Even those who had no intention of asking a guest cantor get offended that, due to this policy, someone else who may wish to have their favorite aunt sing, cannot have Aunt Mary. So in a longer, more fluid, positive way, the manual may say “the parish has a list of competent soloists and cantors to assist you on your wedding day. The music director will work with you as you choose one of these cantors/soloists from the approved list.” The negative phrase has about ten words, while the positive phrase has 35 words. It takes work to say NO in a way that people are not offended.  

The worst kind of NO is the one that is disguised as a YES: when people say YES to so many things (knowing that they are not able to do all of them) but say YES anyway. This type of YES occurs in an RSVP kind of situation where people say YES to a dinner invitation, then either cancel on the day (due to too many YESes) or show up for dinner and tells you upon arrival, “I can’t stay long, as I have to (fill in the blank) in a hour.” All along you have been looking forward to their company, the time of which is now shortened because they did not JUST SAY NO to you when the dinner was scheduled. I believe for every YES explicitly given there is an implicit NO being said to someone who does not know it yet — until the acceptance is cancelled or they leave early. The person who always says YES is not following through with all these YESes, so the YES becomes a NO without NO ever being said.  

We all are victims of this and we have all been guilty of this as well. We are all guilty of not saying NO for fear of the guilt that comes from saying it. Another irony, we all encourage people to JUST SAY NO to some of those requests they get, but in the back of our minds we are thinking, “Just don’t say NO to my request.” TP 

Father Carrion is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese. pcarrion@archbalt.org