Knowing when to say “yes” and when to say “no” is one of the most important practices in our lives. We need to say “no” to that which is life-draining and say “yes” to that which is life-giving. Often this discernment is tricky.
I have been Chair of a committee for the past two years. While this role uses my talents and serves the community, I need to step away to provide another person with this opportunity. They will gain, and I will as well. This “no” makes room for another “yes.”
When we say “yes” or “no” to daily requests (“Will you get the paper?”) or to assignments (“Will you join our board?”) or to relationships (“Will you join me for lunch?”) we express ourselves to the world. We need to pause and reflect on the request and ask: “Does this new opportunity allow me to use my natural talents? Will I be expressing my deepest values through this action? Is this the season of my life when this makes the most sense to me?”
Saying “yes” and saying “no” with intention and grace creates space for the hairpin turns we seek in our lives.
Bill came to talk to me about volunteering at Partnership Village. The children adore being with men so I was hopeful.
Bill told me about a “hairpin moment” which changed the direction of his life: When he approached an ATM machine, a young man shot and robbed him. He wrote a book about his journey of forgiveness. Now he is completing seminary and hopes to be a prison chaplain. He explained: “My gift is that I can be the ‘stand in’ for the person victimized by a crime. This gives the person in prison a chance to ‘put a face’ on their actions—and sometimes deal with, and heal what he has done.”
Bill turned what most of us would call a devastating event into one that not only provided healing for himself but also served the deep needs of others. Hairpin turns often invite us to accept and work with some deep suffering, or wound in our lives, and then allow this to be transformed into a gift to the world.
The strategic planning meeting was about to begin. As I was gathering materials to hand out, I heard others talking about “who is not here.” I noticed impatience in their voices as they shared what they knew (and guessed) about who was absent. When we began the whole day session, I said: “We know some folks are not present with us today. Yet we are here. How might we become present to each other, the mission of our organization and each other?” I knew that all of us (myself included) could be physically present but not fully engaged. This happens all the time. We are checked-out while pretending to follow the agenda. So we might ask ourselves: do we fully occupy the space we are in each moment? As facilitator for this group, the most important part of my role was to help all participants be present to our own unique intelligence, to the smart ideas from each other and to the collective wisdom of the community present. I can only do this when I am fully present. Before we start complaining about who is absent, maybe we need to ask ourselves: “Am I fully occupying this space right now?”
I guest lectured at the local University for a Wednesday 3:30pm class near the end of the term. The students’ portfolios were due in two weeks. I asked them to tell me about their internships and an important question they were holding about that experience. Flat voices. Blank faces. I tried telling a story about one of their nonprofits. Nothing. I asked how I might help them with their portfolio. Eyes down. One girl ate green grapes from a plastic cup and another shared ice cream with her friend. Total boredom. Finally I asked them what drew them to select their nonprofit in the first place and the answer explained everything. They did not choose the placement. They were assigned to their organizations. Now I understood more clearly. When we are “assigned” a task or a project—without our input—often we create resistance and resentment. “Do this because I said so and because it needs to be done.” Or “Make your bed; create a budget with this amount of money; go work at this nonprofit.” Might these students (or our colleagues at work or our children at home) engage differently if we matched their competence, giftedness, interests and creativity with what needed to be accomplished? Making the hairpin turn for others and us involves observing the quality of interest and adjusting the system so that an individual’s gifts intersect with the world’s needs.
Yesterday was a challenging day at Partnership Village—an after school program some of us created for children who are in great need in our community. The children were wild. We volunteers glanced at each other and tried our usual tricks to calm them down. Nothing worked. We flicked the lights off and on. We separated them into smaller groups and finally just started our play—Little Red Riding Hood. Sometimes this is challenging duty for the volunteers and yet we know harder still for the children. “We can do hard,” we tell the children and each other as we play and tutor together. But do any of us really believe that? Secretly we all seem to want “easy” and we want it now (loose 10 lbs in a week; write a novel over the weekend; get the children up to grade level in a month). What might happen if, instead of complaining or expecting instant or easy, we embraced “we can do hard”?