There’s a great short story by Herman Melville about a notary with a rotten boss who suddenly decides he’s had enough. After years of drudgery, serving as a legal scribe without adequate compensation or respect, one day when Bartleby’s boss asks him to examine a paper, he hesitates.
“Bartleby,” writes Melville, “in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, ‘I would prefer not to.’”
The boss is stunned. He asks again. Bartleby’s answer is identical. He shouts his orders. Bartleby responds, quietly, with the same five words.
After an entire career of responding to the whims of his bosses, the pressures of his office, and the needs of his clients, Bartleby decides to simply say no. It changes his life. It can change yours, too.
Like Bartleby, we can be polite about it. “No, thank you.” “Not today.” “I wish I could say yes to this, but my plate is full.” And, of course, the literary favorite. “I’d prefer not to.”
No is a full sentence, the saying goes. Yet it’s often difficult to say and even harder to stick to. We might feel guilt, stress, pressure. We may fear disappointing others, missing out, being late to the party, having nothing to do on a Friday night.
Yet there is no yes without a no. My husband and I don’t get a date night unless we’re ruthless about our other commitments in a given month. My kids don’t get the time they need with individually me unless I’m thoughtful about which friends I invite over and when. We eat fast food unless we say no to its ease, convenience, and low cost in favor of food that is slower, harder, and infinitely richer.
Bartleby wasn’t the only one who knew the joy of saying no. My friend M is one of the beautiful people. You know the type—effortlessly chic, constantly up on the trends, simply stylish. Born with serious cheekbones. Born knowing how to contour her cheekbones.
I ran into M a few months ago, and she was looking even more gorgeous than ever, but something was different. I looked closer. Her hair was in a ponytail. She wore workout clothes and no makeup.
“You look really great,” I told her.
“Thanks!” she said.
“Is something different?” I asked. Maybe she was on a green smoothie kick like my neighbor. Nothing but kale and beet juice for seven days (and by day five arguing so loudly with her husband we had to turn on music to help our kids get to sleep at night).
“Well, I quit Facebook,” she said with a shrug. “I have no idea what’s going on anymore but do you know what? I’m way happier.”
Often we can’t hear God amidst the clutter, but when we let go, step down, and say no to the things he isn’t calling us to do, we find space to hear his voice anew.
What do you need to say no to so you can say yes to some soul space?
For part one of creating soul space by saying no, check out A Laser Yes.