The Yes in the No

I had a few minutes today to listen to a podcast from DuMore Improv about “Accepting without Judgement.”  It’s a good way to spend 28 minutes, and I have to admit, I checked e-mail at the same time so it was a productive half hour. Of course, if you take the time to listen you’ll know how ironic that is since one of their final segments was on offering your full attention to a person you are listening to.  I’m going to cut myself a break though, because they also talked about eye contact and that wasn’t going to happen with a podcast.

There was one section, however, when I stopped typing and really focused on their words.  Jim Karwisch and Allison Dukes Gilmore shared how many people react to their improv mantra of “Yes, and….”  This technique, whether you’re on stage or just living life, invites you to accept what a person is saying and build upon it, rather than shutting the other person down with a “no” or a “but.”  It means accepting the other person’s experience and ideas as real and valid, even if you have different experiences and ideas. In fact, as Allison and Jim explain, you can “yes, and…” without agreeing that the person is right or their suggestion is the way you have to go.  This works well in improv theater, but Jim made me laugh when he described how some business people that they work with in consultations respond: “But it’s my job to say no.”  I find that job description in many churches that I visit.

Now that I was laughing, they had my full attention, and they kept that attention by talking about how operating on a “yes, and” principle is really about working together to solve problems.  You might only say “yes,” that you hear the other person’s problem, even if there is a valid reason that you have to say “no” to their proposed solution.  By saying that first “yes,” you open the door to finding an even better solution that meets everyone’s needs, including the legal department and that woman who thinks she runs the church kitchen. (I added that last bit, Allison and Jim were more focused on corporations than churches, but the parallels run deep.)

As both my e-mail and the podcast came to a conclusion, I found myself coming back in prayer to the idea of saying “no.”  The way I see it, there are times when saying “no,” is a “yes, and” proposition. When I see injustice and I say “no,” I do not mean that the injustice isn’t happening.  I am saying “Yes, there is injustice, and I must do what is necessary to overcome it.”  That is not true for everyone all the time.  Sometimes a “no,” means, “I don’t want to see it so I close my eyes and pretend it isn’t there.”  My tongue goes “la, la,la” loudly enough to say “No.”  Part of my spiritual journey has been forcing myself to be quiet, to open my eyes, and to be a witness to situations in my world that do not line up with the Divine calling.

There’s another way that “no” can be another way of saying “yes, and” in my spiritual journey. It comes when I say “no” to doing one thing that opens up amazing possibilities to do others. I hated to leave my church several years ago, but saying no to regular parish ministry has opened up space for spiritual direction, retreats, writing, and speaking. Saying no for a season to some volunteer work that I enjoyed made space for me to be in a show at the Children’s Theatre with my son. Just this morning, saying no to a work project made time in this day to spend with my husband who takes Fridays as his sabbath since he preaches on Sundays.

Later in August, I will be leading an introduction to our Presbyterian Women’s Bible Study for the women at my husband’s church. The study is on the Ten Commandments, which are so often seen as a giant “no” to anything that is worthwhile, amazing, and fun. What if instead we saw them as giant “yes, and” opportunities. “Yes, killing humans is a terrible tragedy and it would be great to work together to increase people’s respect for all living things.” “Yes, envy needs to be curbed and so does tearing other people down for what they don’t have to make ourselves feel better.” I’ll bet we could come up with yes, ands for all ten of we tried.  Sometimes there really is a yes in our no.

How would you reframe some of the “no’s” in your faith tradition or spiritual life to reflect a “yes, and” mentality? Is it always easy to tell the difference between a “no” that opens you to new possibilities and a “no” that is really just hiding from reality? What might make that easier for you? What podcasts do you listen to that make you laugh and/or make you think more deeply?

I am making a decision that will require me to definitely say “no” to one thing and “yes” to another.  There is no way to do both things without cloning, and I have felt like I am being torn in two as I lean first one way and then the other. I have turned several times in the past weeks to my spiritual director and my friends who are spiritual companions on my journey. I know they cannot make the decision for me, so instead, when I talk to them I ask them for questions that they would want to answer before making this kind of a decision.  That’s been extremely helpful to me.

If you need some help making a decision and need a friendly but neutral heart and mind to walk the journey with you, consider a session or two of spiritual direction with Openings: Let the Spirit In.  I’ve got a whole new batch of questions that might help you too.

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