Karen rushed up to me just after the benediction and poured out her frustration over how frantic she was with all she had to do. “Last week I almost had a breakdown,” she said. “What am I going to do?”
It was a good question. Karen is a bright, ambitious young woman who can’t say “no” to anything worthwhile. The old adage, “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it” fits her perfectly. She can do almost anything well, except say “no”. What, indeed, was she going to do?
Karen knew, of course, that she was asking an expert, for I’m a person who excels in making bad choices. I have often been in precisely her predicament. But I’ve also begun to understand why, even though I still make mistakes. One thing I’ve learned is that the pressure comes from me more than from others. By and large, nobody makesme take on the overload of commitments that destroy any reasonable schedule and drain my energy.
I’ve also learned that the cure for my problem is more spiritual than mechanical. No doubt overcommitted people find help in better time management techniques, as I have, but many of them will use their newfound skills to pack more obligation into their lives rather than to step back from the madcap pace. As they get better, they also get worse, mostly because they are ignoring causes while dealing with symptoms. The real solution is to learn the reasons why we say “yes” when we should say “no”. Most of those are reasons of the heart.
AN ANATOMY OF OVERCOMMITMENT
One common reason is overestimating. We think we can do more than we really can. At one level this is the kind of bad judgment resulting from short-sightedness. At another level, failing to recognize our limitations flows out of wanting to deny that we have limitations.
In Christian circles we sometimes compound the problem by assuming that God will guard us from our foolishness, especially if we are doing God’s work. So we see the specter of pious workaholics, creeping ever closer to disaster, preferring to “burn out rather than rust out for Jesus.” Wanting to be a bit more than human, we modestly slip in and out of phone booths, donning our superhero outfits, and try to leap buildings with a single bound! After a building or two, the spring goes out of our legs and we fall from the sky and start crashing into things, including the sober fact that we have limits.
We also trap ourselves with pleasing. We say “yes” to please other people – to make sure they’ll like us. We people -pleasers can sniff out even the slightest hint of anger or disappointment, and this acute sense triggers a “yes” to fend it off. Pleasers are especially inclined to fall for invitations decorated by phrases like, “You know, I think you’re terrific at…” or, “It would really make me happy if you would…” Of course, there is nothing wrong in wanting to be accepted or to feel worthy. But when it gets out of balance, our need for acceptance tyrannizes us and leads us into wrong choices. We mustn’t say “yes” just to please.
TO THE RESCUE
Similar to pleasing is rescuing, a reason of the heart closely akin to pride. Here the invitation usually comes in the form, “I don’t think we can do it without you” or, “You’re the only one who can…” or, “You’re exactly the person we need.” The whole enterprise, we are told, will rise or fall depending on what we do. What a feast for our pride! A little adrenaline rush urges us to don a white hat, strap on a gun belt full of silver bullets, and gallop off to rescue the beleaguered and distressed. It’s not every day you get to be a messiah.
Sometimes in frustration we even do this to ourselves. “Somebody has to do something!” we complain and then add, “And, since nobody else seems to be getting the job done, I guess that somebody will have to be me.”
Rescuing has power over us because the need seems so desperate and the resources, apart from our own, so few. But we would do well to remember who the Messiah really is and to observe a few cautions.
First, even when those who plead with us are sincere in saying that we’re the only ones who can do it, they’re often wrong. They may not have thought creatively enough to discover solutions equally as good or even better. Secondly, just because they’re desperate it doesn’t mean it’s our responsibility. And even if disaster strikes, it doesn’t mean it’s our fault. Finally, we need to ask ourselves who among those pressing us for our help will come to rescue us, the rescuers, from ourselves? When we heed the flattery of others and our own pride, we pay a dear price.
GOADED BY GUILT
We also say “yes” instead of “no” when we are driven by guiltor a sense of duty. There are duties that are properly ours, and we deserve the guilt we feel when we fail in them. But just as surely, there are duties that are not ours, and we need to know the difference. Often I’m tempted to feel guilty, for example, when others urge me to share the passion they have for particular causes, wonderful causes for the most part. The church’s sports team. Ministry to the elderly, to youth, the homeless, substance abusers, the hungry, orphans, the imprisoned. Sunday School teaching. The church choir. Work for peace and justice. Those who are called and committed to God’s work in these areas all seem to want me to commit myself in the same way, and some would shame me into it. Even though it’s impossible to be passionate about everything, I often feel guilty anyway.
I’m also tempted to feel guilty about taking care of my needs when others want me to help meet their needs. In The Power to Heal, Francis MacNutt recounts a frightening dream that captures this tendency. He dreams that in the midst of a very heavy schedule of teaching and prayer ministry he follows his own counsel about the importance of some rest and recreation. During scheduled free time at the conference he is leading, he changes into tennis clothes and grabs his racket. As he steps out of his room, he sees twelve persons in wheelchairs lined up down the hall, each pleading with him to pray for them. Can he walk past them to get the recreation he needs?
What a nightmare! But it’s one that’s familiar to many of us. In a sense, no matter how hard we work, there are always wheelchairs lined up outside our doors. And we feel guilty about walking past them to do something for ourselves so that we can continue to serve. Out of guilt we’re tempted to slight our own needs for rest, recreation, study, prayer, and other disciplines of a well-ordered life.
Sometimes we’re made to feel guilty by those who think that, in some way, we’re in their debt. At times we do “owe” others our time and strength, but I suspect it is much less often than they would suggest.
We also say “yes” when we should say “no” because of a form of gluttony I call smorgasbording. Life spreads a buffet for us and we’re tempted to take a little of this and a little of that. Mmm, that looks good. I’ll have just a bit. I still have a little room. I just can’t pass that up!until all the little bits add up to heaping portions and we’re bound for the after-the-feast blues.
Perhaps we cram our lives full because we just can’t stand to miss anything that looks fun or interesting or good for us. Or perhaps we heap up activity and obligation because we feel we need to earn our worth – that what we do is what makes us loved and worthwhile. In any event smorgasbording traps us in the tyranny of the good and will certainly make us sick.
I first heard the word shishingfrom a teacher who used it to describe the under current of noise – talking, fidgeting and note-passing – that sometimes went on in his classroom. But shishing goes on in life as well, and it’s another reason we don’t say “no”. Some of us are simply hooked on a life “muzak” of noise and activity. Not knowing how to be still we keep life running at a steady hum and may even regard busyness as a virtue. We have not yet learned to bring stillness to our noisy hearts.
SAYING “YES” TO “NO”
Fortunately, although it may have a strong grip on us, we need not be trapped by the dilemma of “yes” and “no”.
We can learn, for example to honor our limits. We can accept the reality of limitation. The truth is that we can neither respond to every need nor accept every invitation. So the practical question is not whether we will draw the line, but where we will draw the line.
I receive many appeals in the mail for donations to charity, mission, educational, and relief organizations. Most of the organizations are worthy, most of the appeals urgent. I would like to respond to them all, generously if I could. But my bank and creditors would soon object if I did, because I would soon spend all I have. Our time and energies have similar limits. Let’s make sure we’re not spending them into deep debt.
We don’t like to recognize that we have limits. Man and woman’s temptation in the Garden of Eden, in fact, was based on their hope that they could overcome being creatures and be the Creator, that they could “be like gods” (God). But we’re not God, and we must constantly remind ourselves that we have limits as we try to order our lives.
Another practical step is to know and honor our place. Part of God’s mercy to us is our uniqueness. We each have particular gifts and a particular place to fill. Paul made this point when he taught the Church about varieties of gifts and diverse parts of the body (Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12, Eph. 4). The beauty of this plan is that each of us is entrusted with important tasks while none of us is required to do everything. We only need to know our place and be obedient to what it requires. We don’t even need to guarantee the results of our obedience, since only God can do that anyway.
Thomas Kelly writes in A Testament of Devotion: “By inner persuasions He draws us to a few very definite tasks, our tasks, God’s burdened heart particularizing His burdens in us.” What we must do is listen more carefully to God’s leading than to the persuasion of our peers. As we learn to do so we can thank God for what we’ve been entrusted with and can accept it in peace.
I have also found it helpful to take time to give time. Instead of accepting an invitation as soon as it comes, I usually insist on time to think about it before responding. I’ll say, “If you must have an answer now, I’ll have to say “no”. If you can wait and want me to think and pray about it, I’ll be happy to consider it.” Often I will ask the person to put the request in writing, including as much relevant detail as possible. Refusing to give an answer on the spot helps deliver me from both the pressure of others and the enticements of my own spirit. It also gives me a chance to think carefully, to pray about it, and to consult with trusted advisors who help guard me from myself. Through both success and failure I’ve learned that a thoughtful answer is better than an instant “yes”.
Elton Trueblood used to teach his students how to make such choices more effectively by keeping a “fuller calendar.” The principle is easy. Get to your appointment calendar before anybody else does and write in the things that are priorities for you – evangelism, building up other Christians spiritually, time to study and write, personal retreats, times when you will be free of obligation. Then honor those appointments with as much importance as any other invitation. The practice itself is harder, because we want to see if we can “fit things in,” and we are inclined in our weakness to yield to what seems urgent while neglecting what is genuinely important. Yet the “fuller calendar,” wisely practiced, can help stem the mad dash of our lives by helping us say “yes” and “no” when we should.
To know when to say “yes” or “no”, we also need to count the costof our decisions. Most of us need to calculate more accurately what various activities cost us in time, money, and energy. If we pay attention, we can learn from our experience and from the experience of others. I’ve been learning what it requires to accept an out-of-town speaking engagement – from the preparation and details involved before the trip to the energies spent on the trip and the energies spent catching up once I get home. It’s a lot more than I would have guessed. Similarly, when someone asks us to serve on a committee or participate in a project, we would be wise to ask someone who has already done that task what it costs. Most of us have already learned to beware of invitations hedged with the promise that “it won’t take much time.” Here, especially, and with all such decisions we need to understand what the expectations are and what we will pay with our “yes” or “no”.
One part of counting the cost is to recognize what we are saying “no” to when we say “yes”. If we do some things, we will not be able to do others. We can ask ourselves, “If I say “yes”, am I silently saying “no” to other things that matter to me? Discipling others? To study or rest? To evangelize? To others that I’m called to serve?” Every “yes” hides a “no”, and we’ll do well to flush it into the open.
Finally, having decided, we can rest joyfully in God. We don’t need to stir up the decision-making process with regret that we can’t do whatever we’ve chosen against. Instead, we can delight in having made as wise and obedient a decision as we know how. We mustn’t fret over whether others will succeed without us, whether they might not and we would be blamed, nor whether they might succeed and we weren’t essential after all.
And we can relax. We don’t need to bear the burden of making the right decision 100 percent of the time. We’ll make mistakes. But we can listen as well as we can, be as obedient as we can, and move on.
Instead of worrying, we can delight in the good things that happen in our lives because we are learning to choose wisely and say “no” when we should. We can also be glad about the things we are now able to say “yes” to. Above all, we can enjoy the new freedom we experience as we see God working to transform our frantic lives. We can be glad that we have the freedom to say “yes” to “no”.
Howard R. Macy, Discipleship Journal