Saying ‘no’ can be powerful; it’s saying ‘yes’ that changes the world.
© Martin Sercombe (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
In my Unitarian Universalist fellowship, I’ve asked lots of people for their talent, time, and treasure—and I’ve discovered that folks are impressively empowered, if saying “no” is an accurate measure of our autonomy. We are empowered by “no.” This is, we are told, a way to establish independence.
Of course there are valid reasons to say “no” to commitments that don’t reflect our values, and complexities that threaten to drown us in a maelstrom of demands. But oftentimes our refusal stems from a perceived shortage of time. And this capacity to carefully guard one’s time plagues those seeking to make a difference—churches addressing poverty, activists battling racism, and organizations responding to climate change, extinction, and deforestation.
Many people prefer virtual communities and virtual commitments. Social media is a fine starting point, but ethereal activism isn’t sufficient when real sea levels rise, real storms ravage poor neighborhoods, and real floods sweep down denuded mountainsides into mining communities. And then “no” has actual consequences.
In à la carte activism, people join a venture when some issue piques their interest and allows them to feel the self-esteem of having “done something” about injustice. I’m talking here about the tendency for drop-in involvement when an opportunity for low-risk engagement presents itself—the propensity to post an expression of outrage, attend a protest, or shout a slogan and then move on. These opportunities for ephemeral righteousness rely on an existing and persisting infrastructure of leadership, funding, planning, and communications.
It’s like the old joke about the contribution of creatures to a bacon-and-eggs breakfast: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed! Somehow, someone will file the forms, pay the bills, fix the plumbing, and update the website. But in human and other biological communities, the farmer can’t just drop in for the harvest, the trees can’t only show up for the fall colors, and the bees can’t simply arrive when the flowers bloom.
Sometimes people say “yes” with a sense of joy in having been asked, but there’s no shortage of self-actualized religious liberals who have mastered “no.” To be fair, people usually decline in less terse, but more revealing, ways.
Many explain that, “I’m too busy.” But the question is not “Are you busy?” but, “What consumes your time?” Rather than assessing whether you have “free” time (the answer being “no”), consider whether that which fills your time trumps what is being asked. Indeed, there is only so much time. Choisir, c’est renoncer—to choose is to forsake. But we must be keenly aware of what we are selecting and refusing. To accept service is oftentimes agreeing to become a part of the nuts-and-bolts that hold up the framework of justice.
Others reply, “I would, but I’m not that dedicated.” Surely this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we avoid deepening our commitment, then we assure that we shall never experience the sense of connection that would draw us into service to one another and the natural world.
People often say, “I am desperately seeking a sense of authentic community.” What goes unsaid is the caveat, “if only someone would build one for me.” But genuine communities of social and environmental justice are not discovered lying about like so many seashells on the beach—pretty, fragile things that we happen upon and collect. They are like the breakwaters that we construct as protection against the storms, with a solid foundation and ragged patches revealing a story of adaptation and survival.
In the end, I wonder how often a reluctance to say “yes” is not because we have empowered ourselves to say “no” but because power frightens us. Perhaps what we truly fear is not weakness, but rather the power that we know lies within us. Perhaps saying “no” is a denial of the power—and moral obligation—to shape the world.
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Jeffrey A. Lockwood, an insect ecologist and writer, is a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming. An online columnist for UU World, he is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laramie, Wyoming. He is the author of several books, including Grasshopper Dreaming, Locust, and Prairie Soul.
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