Saying No as a Spiritual Practice
February 19, 2013
“God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting.”
– Meister Eckhart
I’ve been haunted by the following poem ever since I first read it.
Going to Walden
by Mary Oliver
It isn’t very far as highways lie.
I might be back by nightfall, having seen
The rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.
Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!
Many have gone, and think me half a fool
To miss a day away in the cool country.
Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.
I’ve never been the kind of person for whom it is hard to say no. As a child, I can’t even remember when I learned to stop asking for things because I knew the answer would be no. It was a given that there was no money for things you might want — for us, the Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs were indeed “wish books.” Money was spent on things we needed — socks, underwear, an occasional pair of shoes. I did not ask to use our one car for extra curricular activities because I knew my parents would say no.
For me, the harder challenge has been to learn to say yes, to stop deferring all gratification until some future date when I might find it more affordable. I am almost too comfortable being frugal. I have few regrets, though. I take advantage of opportunities that come my way when I can. I work and plan to make a few cherished dreams come true.
Too often I say no because of financial reasons that other people would not stress about. Maybe I really am missing out because I do not say yes more often.
And that’s why I find Mary Oliver’s poem so haunting. She says no to a trip to Walden Pond, but for non-financial reasons. If I were in her shoes, I don’t know whether I would have said no. I’m sure I would have found the trip interesting and it would have fueled my imaginings about Thoreau’s life. But Oliver said no and took the more difficult and slow path of finding meaning at home. For her, saying no was a spiritual practice.
I don’t know whether I agree with the Meister Eckhart quote at the beginning of this post. It was the epigraph to one of the chapters in Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith in which she writes about a dozen ordinary, daily practices that can embody the aura of spiritual exercises. Her chapter called “The Practice of Saying No,” is about honoring the Sabbath, saying no to the endless demands of daily life and taking every seventh day as a day of rest. This is hard to do these days, when stores (and libraries) are open seven days a week, when we have internet access and cable TV 24 hours a day, and so many choices about how to spend our time.
I can see that saying no is one path to a more meaningful life. But I’m not quite ready to agree that saying yes won’t get me there, too.