It is a hot, sticky August night, and I know I will have to wet my hair to get cool enough to fall asleep. I am sitting on the porch of a rustic cabin with an angry teenager. Earlier, I had spoken briefly with my best friend of twenty years, who is being admitted tonight to the hospital to get treatment for recently diagnosed cancer.
Just now, I am "intervening". This is the kind of thing I do all the time, but in this case I am a volunteer, helping out with a grief recovery wilderness camp. In neutral tones and repetitive brief statements, I lay out the alternatives to the sullen, argumentative teen who has been disrupting the program.
And I am thinking, "What am I doing here? I should be at the hospital!" Although I don't know it, my friend has only a week to live.
Eventually the teen chooses, by default, to go home, and I stay up waiting for her ride. She is calmer now, we speak of other things. Watching the taillights of her mother's car recede, I have an epiphany. In a flash I see a lifetime of choices that too often separated me from friends and family.
Is it hard or easy for you to say "no" ? What ---or who---are you most likely to say "no" to and who or what gets your "yes"? Which choices of how to spend time and energy are hardest to make?
Sometimes, the hardest choice is between two good things. Sometimes, it is between different people we care about that we must choose our "yes" and "no".
Each "no" inherently holds a "yes." When we say "no" to a commitment, task or activity, to what might we be saying "yes"?
To begin with, a certain amount of time and energy belongs to us again, to be redistributed in a different way.
Saying "yes" to projects and activities splinters time into fragments, more and more as we say "yes" to more.
I used to say "yes" to nearly every opportunity that was the least bit attractive--- opportunities to lead, serve, explore, learn, teach. I fractured myself into bits because I couldn't see that saying "no" really meant saying "yes" to something I valued. My ego was served by all the opportunities to do something new, different. In retrospect, I don't deny the value of those. I learned a lot, met a lot of people, probably did some good in the world. But I regret not being able to accept my own limitations as I ran as fast as could, year after year. Everything was kind of blurry as I sped by. Much that could have nourished my soul was deferred as I focused on being productive and engaged in many good things.
Some of this is developmentally typical, at least in our culture. Many folk engage in lots of volunteerism in their 30's and 40's, in order to gain a presence in the community and begin to give back, after getting their lives otherwise established. This is by and large a good thing for society. Giving back to our communities, or to those we don't know or will never meet or never see again, is both a privilege and responsibility to the world outside our narrow pathways.
I am not saying the balancing act is easy.
But in reflection that August night years ago, I thought, "does it have to be me, sitting here, this night? On this night, where am I uniquely needed to be, i.e. that place in my journey where I most belong, right now?" Maybe that question is not always the best criteria, but it is a starting place, in keeping the balance.
What I faced, sweating on that porch, was the pain of looking at the relationships of my life, and recognizing when I had been present and when I had been absent. It was not an easy reflection. But it was the start of transformation.
Are you busy, over-committed, overwhelmed? Do you meet yourself coming and going, pass your closest family and friends on the way out the door? Is it seductive to feel busy, important, involved, engaged,entertained, efficient, please others?
When you say "no", what are you saying "yes" to? Could your "no" be a resounding "yes" to feeling more alive, focused, healthy, whole, available to important relationships, noticing what's important, nourishing your soul?
The best thing we have to offer is our careful, focused attention. Who or what do you want to pay attention to?