Off the Pulpit

“NO” In Thunder

When I speak to high school students, I tell them that the only word that gives you freedom is ‘no.’ The one who cannot say ‘no’ is a slave.

Both boys and girls (especially the latter) are socialized to believe they are responsible for the other person’s feeling and therefore must always say ‘yes.’ Otherwise you are being contrary, disagreeable or unkind. But if you cannot say ‘no’ your ‘yes’ has little meaning – it is not affirmation but coercion. In this spirit Emerson wrote in his journals, “I like the sayers of No better than the sayers of Yes.” He was not against affirmation; he was for freedom.

Every request is a demand on your time, you attention, your resources. Every yes means saying, even if implicitly, ‘no’ to something else. So say it out loud:Melville wrote Hawthorne in a letter that he admired him for saying “NO! in thunder.”

The courage to say no when others are saying yes (and indeed at times, to say yes when others are saying no) is essential to living one’s own life. Do you wish to be yourself? Learn to say ‘no.’ As the Kotzker Rebbe taught, if I spend my life being someone else, who will be me?