Estelle recently told me of an evening within the past few weeks when her daughter, Elizabeth, received a phone call from a friend of hers in distress and needing to talk. Elizabeth went immediately to her friend, another high schooler. When her daughter returned to Estelle in a few hours she also was upset. Her friend had told her that someone had attempted to assault her. After her conversation with her friend, Elizabeth felt like she would never be able to spend time with or have a relationship with a boy.
“Does the friend have an adult she can go to?” I asked Estelle.
“She doesn’t feel comfortable talking to her parents. I offered to talk to her friend, but Elizabeth said no because she hadn’t gotten permission to talk to anyone else about this. Now that I think about it,” Estelle went on, “there is a wellness center at school where her friend can go. I’ll suggest that.”
“That’s a lot for a child — for anyone — to take on,” I tell her.
“She’s always there for her friends. I think she’s going to be a therapist or psychologist.”
One of our friends sitting nearby is, conveniently, a psychiatrist. She chimes in, “You have to be able to make and maintain barriers. If you take on everything that your patients bring to you, it leads to burn out.”
On Sunday February 16th of this year the gospel was taken from Matthew and ended, “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” I love when knowledge of the historical context in which Jesus lived deepens and expands the meaning of the gospel. In this case, however, I was struck by how contemporary and relevant this verse felt, as if Jesus was speaking to us, specifically, in this very day and age (which, of course, he was) with full knowledge and understanding of the challenges that we would face today (which, of course, he had). For the past few weeks, this verse keeps coming back to me and bearing more fruit each time. Each time I think “that’s it, I’ve figured this one out”, it teaches me more. And my starting point with this verse was as simple as this: according to Jesus, saying “no” is an option.
My first thought was of how I say my yeses and nos to the kids. I was thinking about times when they have asked to do something and rather than just saying “no”, I launch into a long explanation of all of my reasons why the answer is no. So to read “anything more is from the evil one” was a wake up call. Why was I spending so much time softening the “no” for my kids? Disappointment and being told no is, after all, a part of life and I was doing them no favors by justifying and explaining and coddling their egos in this way. When my Ms10yo was about three, she took a bad spill on the sidewalk. Her knee got pretty banged up and was scraped and bleeding. At home, I cleaned her up and put a large band-aid over her wound. And then, of course, came the day when her dad and I realized that her bandage was quickly becoming a petri dish of infection over her open wound. It was time to get some air on that thing. Her dad held her in his lap as I considered which technique to use. She was already anticipating something horrible was about to happen so I tried not to hesitate. I spoke to her in a gentle voice as I found a loosened corner to stick my finger underneath the flexible edge. And I ripped it. All in one go. Off. I got up and walked away to the sound of her shrieks and a look on Eric’s face that said, “Damn. Now that’s how you remove a band-aid.”
More recently, our almost 2yo son has shown a keen interest in small plastic hockey sticks (purchased by Eric in a moment of … well, a moment of non-clarity) and light-sabers and swords and sticks and cardboard tubes and anything he can swing and preferably make solid contact with something else. Needless to say, the something else is often another person. It’s an on-going process of trying to teach him what he can hit and when that involves a lot of putting items up out of his reach until “later” by which we mean when he is 25. He was recently taking swings with a stick while we were outside and he had that look in his eyes and that cocked arm that meant he was aiming for my shins. I started backing away when the phrase “let your no mean no” fell into my ear. “No,” I said to him firmly and decisively and I stopped backing up and away from him. If my “no” really means “no”, I have no need to back away. And it worked. He didn’t swing the stick. He walked away to find something else to hit.
So already this phrase has impacted my parenting and the time I have with my children. But, as I’ve started to keep it in mind with relationships outside of our family, it has continued to fruit more time and focused attention for us.
Not long after hearing this verse, someone asked me to do something for them. At the time, I was with my son, trying to pay attention to him and keep him entertained and, more importantly, safe. But, as always, I really wanted to be helpful so I hesitated a moment before I said, “No, I can’t” to the other person. “You can’t?” the other person asked and I realized that I hadn’t ever really said “no” to this person before. I had always been amenable and agreeable, even when what the things they were asking me to do were kind of a massive waste of my time. “No,” I said more definitively. “I can’t.”
And you know what happened? Nothing. This person just went away and left me alone. And the saying “no”, it felt kinda goooooood and I was able to turn back to my son and pay him some positive attention.
In an earlier post, I wrote about how, as a stay-at-home mom, it’s sometimes difficult for me to parse out what is “work” and what is “rest” because I am paid for neither and somehow (and I don’t think that this is actually unusual) I associate work with a paycheck. Because we home school, I often say that our schedule is very flexible in the sense that we aren’t beholden to school bells or timetables for most things. But this isn’t to say that what we are doing isn’t important. And I have to maintain a clear “yes” and a clear “no” in order to protect all of these important things that we are doing and learning together.
I asked Eric what he thought about when he heard, “Let your yes mean yes; let your no mean no” and he talked about how one’s intentions have to match what you express. “Otherwise, it’s just passive aggressive.” Right. Passive aggressiveness: when one’s outward expression is masking an underlying desire to sabotage or undermine someone else. Certainly, don’t say “yes” when you mean “no” and don’t say “no” when you mean “yes.”
The older girls used to have a friend who would sometimes knock on our door, asking to play and, at times, would not take “no” for an answer. The girls came to us once for advice.
“Tell her no,” I told them.
“But then she always asks us, ‘why’?”
“You don’t have to answer her questions. It might feel rude, but after you say, ‘No, thank you’ to her, it’s ok to just close the front door.”
Saying “no”, even to a friend or someone we love and care about, doesn’t make us mean or a bad person. And sometimes saying “no” to someone, allows us to say “yes” to something else. And mean it.