Ten years ago I was teaching an eight week program at Wellspring Calgary, on Living Well With Illness. My co-facilitator, colleague and precious friend John Stephure and I, were wrapping up the last evening. Just before we shutdown, a participant asked me for the name of my favourite book.
As a lover of books it was like being asked to name my favourite child. Impossible. However, a book title had sprung to mind. I confidently announced that one of my most favourite and important books was the Power of A Positive No by William Ury.
To my complete and utter surprise I heard John, who was standing by my side, say to our group,” Trudy has never read that book.”
I turned to face him with a look of disbelief on my face and then turned to the participants and announced – “Of course I have read that book. I read it twice.”
There was a split second of silence followed by John’s clear and direct response: “you could have fooled me.”
Everyone laughed. Me too.
Yet, something had burned into my brain. It felt as though I had been hit by a stick, compliments of a Zen master. It rattled me.
Life can change in a moment. This was the last official thing that John and I did together. Four weeks later he had died as a result of his cancer that had been predicted to end his life ten years earlier. Consequently, those words became an important part of John’s legacy in my life.
For instance, I experienced a challenging and proud moment two years later when I declined an offer to participate in a project that I would have thoroughly enjoyed. A former colleague invited me to sit on a committee doing work that I believed in.
I was, however, involved in the deeply meaningful work of caring for my young grandchildren and regaining my own health. My commitment was to be fully present at that stage of their young lives so I chose to say no to the generous offer. Competing purposes, even good ones, would have been a detriment, at that time.
When I delivered my gracious no, with thanks for the invitation, my colleague said:
“John would be proud of you.”
During John’s last ten years he devoted himself to help establish Wellspring Calgary, a free resource centre for anyone affected by cancer, including caregivers. It continues to provide a wealth of gold standard programs and services for individuals, families and friends. His vision never wavered from his purpose that no one need face cancer alone and that all services had to be free.
Yes to Life
John said YES to life and invitations of all kinds but he also filtered them through what he called his Four F’s: Family, Friends, Faith and Fun. He was clear on his purposes and what he wanted to accomplish, see, and do, while he could. It appeared to me that his purposes fell under the category he named Faith. He took his work seriously. And his “yes” was always, without exception the faithful “yes.” In other words, yes was a promise, and he kept his promises.
He also said No
The Four F’s became his filter to help with those decisions. He would sometimes say no, if the request didn’t fall into one of his important categories. Take golf as a Fun example. John loved golf and winters in Calgary are long and cold. You would not find John sitting in a meeting during July and August. Meetings could happen ten months of the year but not in the summertime. His filter of Fun was never taken for granted.
Many of us are awkward around the word no. When my children were growing up I let them know they could ask me for anything as long as they considered no an acceptable answer. I, on the other hand, found saying no disconcerting in most other instances. Illness was an excellent teacher to help me develop the skill of how and when to say a gracious no.
When our calendar fills up with tests, treatments and appointments and we are fatigued and unwell, we have a so called “acceptable” reason to decline requests, including ones we would enjoy. Furthermore, we get immediate feedback for uttering too many yes’s. Our bodies and minds let us know that a mistake was made.
Yet, we need to learn to say NO when the reason may not suit others. As good health returns it is easy to slip back into the same old habits. And then the words of the poet, Naomi Shihab Nye come to mind:
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
William Ury, learned to say no because of his young daughter’s serious illness. No to unnecessary tests and intrusive examinations. Yet, he needed her medical team to engage and connect with his daughter and the family. How to navigate this delicate balance and not fracture important relationships was the challenge. And it became the learning that produced the Power of A Positive No
The wisdom of saying yes, is indisputable for a full and engaging life. And NO is part of that. We can look at it this way. In order to be faithful to the yes’s we have already given, there are times when we need to say no. This is a valuable skill worth learning, if we aren’t good at it yet. How to say no without fracturing our most important relationships. How to say no in order to preserve the time for what is most important to each of us. Saying no can be nerve wracking and learning to do so graciously can be a game changer.
“All too often we cannot bring ourselves to say No when we want to and know we should.” William Ury
Note 1: William Ury is the co-founder of the Negotiation Project at Harvard and he has always been a “say yes” and “get past no” expert. In contrast, he discovered the power and necessity of the positive no during a medical crisis. He described it something like this: We need to be able to say a gracious and firm no, in order to say yes to something more important. And ultimately, that NO will get to YES. Ten years later I still recommend his book, The Power of A Positive No.
Note 2: Full disclosure: I am no expert at this yet but I am so much better than I used to be. Mostly, I have learned to give myself a pause rather than to jump in and say yes, if I am uncertain. Life keeps offering us so many choices, things we would love to do. Yet, we have limited time and resources. Now, I sleep on the offers, and that has made all the difference.
Note 3: It is best not to mention the weather this week. I didn’t join the hail and hearty crowd, after all. Sigh. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. Until next week, Trudy