Earlier today, some friends and I went for lunch at the local Indian sweet centre, just a minute’s walk from my house. As we were leaving, we became aware of an altercation taking place on the pavement opposite. A couple of men were arguing; one, with a small, scruffy dog on a lead, was hurling abuse at the other, who was being held back by three of his friends. It didn’t seem as though any punches had yet been thrown, but clearly tensions were running high and threats had been made.
I’ve lived in this diverse neighbourhood for a very long time. It’s extremely rare to see a display of hatred or conflict like that, in broad daylight. My friend’s two younger children were a little disturbed by it; other passers-by had stopped to look and listen, ready to intervene if it turned nasty. Without really thinking, I walked across the road and into the middle of the fight. Now shouting vociferously, the two men were clearly beyond reason, but the sight of a woman in their midst seemed to distract them momentarily. No, let’s stop this now. Break it up. Reluctantly, they began to part, still turning back every few paces to insult each other. The possibility of physical violence gradually ebbed away, and the street’s normal calm returned.
I’ve always been scared by violence. In most instances, I’d rather run than wade in. I guess I made a split-second decision that intervening wouldn’t be dangerous, but beyond that, there was no rationale for my action. I had no idea what or who started the argument, what the rights or wrongs of it were, and I had no interest in finding out. All I knew was that it didn’t seem okay for two grown men to be swearing at each other in the street in the middle of the day. It was an affront to me, the children, the local shopkeepers, and everyone else going about their lives. So even though the situation was none of my business, I said no.
The negative generally has a bad reputation. We’re encouraged to think positively, to say our affirmations, to open up rather than shutting down. We prefer expansion to contraction, light to dark, yang to yin, yes to no. We really struggle to say no. When it comes to no, we find it hard to be honest, because we believe that saying no is somehow unacceptable. We hesitate, feel guilty, make excuses, imagine that we’re being selfish. We worry that other people will stop loving us or become hostile. Even when we’re feeling no in every fibre of our being, we’re still reluctant to say it.
If we look, however, it’s clear that we pay a heavy price for our inability to say no. We get angry, or create notions of fault and blame, in an attempt to make it feel okay. You’ve behaved so badly, that I’m justified in saying no to you now. We act out, or we try to avoid people or situations. We lie. Do you like it? Yeah, it’s great. Just what I’ve been looking for.
More than that, our inability to say no to others means that we aren’t saying yes to ourselves. Every time we’re unable to say a clear, open-hearted no, we compromise ourselves. We can’t say no, and so we stay in jobs and relationships that aren’t right for us, we spend time with people who we don’t really connect with, and we get involved in activities that don’t fulfil us, even if they please someone else. We may even put up with behaviour that demeans us. Every time we say yes when we mean no, our relationships are damaged; resentment lingers, and we begin to lose our integrity.
Many years ago, a close relation came to stay. One afternoon during her visit, she launched into one of her scathing and very personal attacks. I retreated into my normal stance – this was by no means the first such drubbing – and became passive and mollifying as her stinging criticisms continued. The next day, once she’d gone, I suddenly began to cry, and from deep within came a huge and powerful NO! No, you are not going to do that to me again. No, I will not stand for it again. For the first time in my life, I’d discovered my no. I never discussed it with her, but I know that, in that moment, something changed. From then on, she was unfailingly lovely to me.
And in saying no to her, I said yes to myself. Finally, I’d been able to be my own protector. No can be a guardian, a necessary boundary. If we haven’t found our no, then our yes is meaningless. By fully connecting with the power of no, we get to live the much greater yes.