Saying No

I was at a birthday party recently, lingering near the beer cooler after I finished chatting with the only friend I knew beside the birthday girl. I was taking my time to avoid that awkward moment of having to squeeze my way into a conversation of strangers. I had the look of someone seeking a chat, trying to appear confused when choosing my drink, opening myself up for an entry. Naturally, it was the cool dude with the tank top, ponytail, and beard that approached me. Equally as unsurprising, Rory was also far from where he was born, a rural town outside Melbourne. We shared the usual openers, how long we’ve lived in London, and he opened the door for a curious soul like myself to start digging in. It’s hard not to pick away when someone tells you they traveled around Europe for months in a van. As you can imagine, he had stories for days, from having all his belongings stolen near Rome to falling asleep parked at an overlook in Ireland, staring out at the Cliffs of Moher. But the best moments were always with the people, the chance opportunities to delve deeper into a community or an experience that could never be found on a tourist website. Before making it up to the UK, he traveled Australia with the same rule he brought around Europe, “Say yes to everything, you can always say no later”.

Talking through my own traveling, I shared his sentiment that saying yes is the first step toward the good stuff, but it’s only empowered by our ability to say no when things don’t go as hoped. At times, saying yes is an investment too large that there’s no possibility for backing out. Whether money or time, some commitments are just too costly to get involved in. It may also be our emotions, either feeling bad that we wasted some else’s time and energy, or that we simply can’t handle the short trip down memory lane that may be asked of us. More often though, especially with our time, we underestimate how big of a commitment we’re actually making. In reality, we could back out more easily than we think.

Many of Rory’s best adventures began with a simple offer made by a recent acquaintance at a pub. Explaining to an older Irish guy that he was traveling in the van, looking for authentic Irish music, there was a quick offer to come down the street to a more secluded pub where locals were playing tunes while a dance group from somewhere nearby entertained. But it wasn’t until the man offered a meal with his family and place to sleep that the experience was truly made. The house was gorgeous, owned by the man’s family for generations overlooking a bay in southern Ireland. The food was authentic and homemade, an obvious point of pride for his hosts. When Rory explained that he had ancestors from Ireland, specifically one who was a figure in the independence movement of the early 20th century, the man went to his attic and appeared with a photo of both their ancestors from the time. At any time, Rory could have gotten up and gone home, whether from the music in the pub or the dinner table at the man’s home. Sure, there may have been a bit of awkwardness, feeling bad about refusing a generous offer, but the older man was clearly going about his life anyways. When someone else wasn’t investing too much of himself, the decision to say no and the cost of that decision laid squarely on Rory’s shoulders.

It’s easy for me to get excited about these chance encounters with old Irish men who bring you into their lives for just a night. It’s a party story if there ever was. But really it was just an experience and learning moment. Everyday there are similar chances to say yes to smaller asks and possibilities, only enabled if I feel empowered to say no. I chose to go to the birthday party because I knew I could leave if it wasn’t my scene. That’s a skill that hasn’t come easily, a struggle that has been relieved with maturity and an appreciation for my time. Social pressures make it feel wrong to walk into a restaurant, sit down, realize that the smell, lighting, or feng shui isn’t to my liking, and get up and leave. If I’m halfway through a movie or book, is the time already spent too much to simply give it up and move on? It’s worth it to plan a different type of date night, drinks and a comedy show instead of boring old dinner. But when the performer is crude and the jokes don’t hit, aren’t I better off leaving the expectations behind and heading for a walk around town?

The hook is that once we feel strong enough to say no and walk away, we can really jump in when saying yes. It may be a connection a friend makes, suggesting a coffee between two like minded people working in similar industries, having similar backgrounds. Feeling forced into the situation changes us from engaged individual to unwilling participant. Knowing that any sip of coffee could be the last if we decide we want to leave drops our guard and angst, opening ourselves to a world-changing, perspective-altering encounter. That shut off valve is where the power lies.

Life presents a contradiction of choice. Precisely because opportunities are foreign and new, they are the ones that will make the biggest impact on us. The less we know about an area of life, the more it can alter us. But that newness is what makes them scary. We’re afraid we won’t be able to say no when the time comes. Is it because we’ve already read half the book, watched half the movie, or accepted the invitation? Or are we afraid we actually might like poetry, noir films, or strange looking vegetables? We want to be able to say yes, learning and trying brings growth to our lives, it opens our foundations to change and presents the unimaginable. Before that, we must get comfortable saying no.