My father used to say that our chores should be “done graciously or not done at all.” I did not have the choice, as a child, to decline his invitation to empty the dishwasher simply because I felt unable to do the job cheerfully and with intention. (Although my brother, always more savvy about the workings of the universe, sometimes announced that he could not do the job graciously, so he wasn’t going to do it at all). At forty-seven, I am allowed to exercise my option. I’m just not awfully good at it, yet.
This saying “no” business is a work in progress, but I believe I am getting better at including my own psyche when balancing the pros and cons of a project or social obligation. Three years ago this fall, I ended up as a soccer coach despite the fact that I, personally, had never played a team sport in my life. When I heard that there would be no 4th grade boys rec league team unless someone agreed to coach, I said “yes” to a year of twice weekly practices, a car full of flags and balls, indulging underachievers and over-whiners, and picking up empty plastic water bottles. The same year, I also oversaw the 4th grade Spaghetti Dinner, a major fund-raiser which involved coordinating parents and students to prepare and serve spaghetti and meatballs to 500 people. I honestly don’t remember signing up for that, but apparently when someone asked, I said “yes.” The following year, I agreed to be the Vice President of the PTA because I was told that the Vice President “didn’t really have to do anything;” a month into the school year the President quit, and I became President for two years in a row. I agreed to put together the employee Christmas party at Church despite the fact that it was someone else’s job, and that I was not even a category of persons who would have been invited to the event, because the person whose job it actually was called and said she was too busy, and besides, I was so good at it….
If I try to be objective, I can see a certain needy desperation about all this agreeableness. Maybe I saw myself as The Savior of the Fourth Grade and The Church, the literal sine qua non who made it possible for the little children of the village to play soccer, go on their bus trip to Mackinac Island, and have a well-run PTA, and for the hard-working Church employees to have a festive Christmas celebration. Regardless of whether my motivation was selflessness or narcissism, I frankly ended up hating every job I took on, dreading practices, dreading meetings, sighing at every e-mail, list and hitch, feeling that my true self, who requires a great deal of quiet and solitude, was being killed in a perverse kind of Professional Busy-ness Suicide. There is also a Martyr Gene, passed down from my father, which escaped my brother entirely. He can say “no” when he means it without hesitation, while I, the Carrier, wrestle and suffer over every request.
These three years later, I am not coaching anything, and my son would be so horrified if I showed up at his school to do anything other than pick him up for a dental appointment that I have divested myself of all school-related volunteering. I have refused all invitations to serve at Church (which is a whole other post altogether), and I am down to two volunteer positions. I said “yes” to serving as a board member for the Community Relations Coalition, and “yes” to being the Co-President of the Neighborhood Association (although I somehow ended up as the only President). As I write, I have skipped nearly every Community Relations Coalition meeting this year, which suggests a passive-aggressive form of rejection better replaced by a crisp letter of resignation. I am willing to continue to serve as Neighborhood Association President, mainly because we have no actual meetings, and my duties are limited to sending mass e-mails about potlucks and the danger of leaving one’s house unlocked.
If I have learned nothing else in 47 years (and its entirely possible that I haven’t) it is that saying “yes” with no discernment leads to about 24 hours of feeling beneficent, followed by an exponentially longer period of resentment, frustration and self-loathing. I do not need another list of people to call, another set of dates for my planner, or another folder of messages under my e-mail Inbox. I need time to write, putter, work, think, reflect, dream, read, dust my stairs, wash my dogs and gather what’s left of my wits. Maybe I’m lazy, maybe I lack ambition, but I know myself to be a better person when I carve out great, glorious chunks of uninterrupted time to do whatever I need to do without the sense that the next meeting or round of e-mails is haunting me.
Unfortunately, my instinct for self-preservation conflicts with a deeply ingrained sense of duty and the need to be “unselfish.” What if Martin Luther King had decided that he was tired, and that someone else could run things for a while? What if Mother Theresa had decided that lepers were annoying and that her real interest lay in decorating crypts in Europe? If I don’t say “yes” to the endless stream of boards, projects and coalitions, maybe no one will. There could be anarchy, and the schools, the Church and the City could all come to a grinding halt. Also, I would be Setting a Bad Example, which is always the case when one is selfish.
If things would fall apart without me, though, maybe all of those things do not actually need to get done. Maybe if all of us who routinely say “yes” play a game of chicken with those who are content to watch us from the sidelines, the passive beneficiaries of our efforts will be motivated to run a committee or serve on a board. Maybe not.
Either way, I can’t keep saying “yes” without thinking about the consequences. I will say “no,” or at least not say “yes” when I really have no interest in or excitement about a given proposal, and save enough of myself to do some real good when something comes along that inspires me to give generously of my time and energy.
Or maybe I’ll say “yes.”
[Note: for some reason, WordPress wouldn’t let me add pictures to this post. Perhaps they are disappointed by my negative attitude].