Balancing Between Yes and No

Karl Lagerfeld 2000

In my twenties, I said yes to so much.

Yes, the rainforests are important! Yes, I’ll attend the next Save the Amazon committee meeting! By saying yes to them, I showed I could put in the hard work (the unglamorous work, the work that wasn’t seen) by doing things like writing letters to foreign governments in the basement of the student union. This way of giving back was so different from the fun communal volunteerism of Habitat for Humanity… to which I also said yes.

Yes, I’ll edit that newsletter for free!
Yes, I’ll start a voting education program for kids!
Yes, yes, yes!

Until, of course, I simply couldn’t anymore. I had no more hours or brain power, and my anxiety was through the roof. And then I said no to a lot of things for a long time.

The say-yes and the say-no divide is strong in our society. Yes’ers say doing so opens us up to possibilities and new perspectives that we can’t even imagine. No’ers emphasize self-care, which ultimately allows you to be more present in the world. Both are true. But neither is a full picture for me, or really the point.

Yes does not always lead to a new reality, and no does not always equal self-care. Instead of asking “What could be new and different?” and “What will make me feel the most comfortable and rejuvenated?” I wanted to ask other questions. I’ll share those with a brief story of a recent moment of giving back.

The other day I signed up to canvass for one of our candidates for city council. I liked that she was asking volunteers to distribute a short comic book she’d commissioned that talked about our city’s housing crisis. Affordable housing is an important topic for me, and while I was also happy to support her campaign overall, her focus on this item from her platform was key to me. What followed was, however, a series of hilarious unfortunate events.

I showed up at campaign headquarters to find the door was locked. I called the contact listed in the reminder email and learned there’d been an error, and staffers weren’t showing up for another hour and a half. I don’t have a car, and I’d run to the office. I couldn’t easily return, even if my schedule allowed that.

In an attempt to make the best of the situation, the staffer on the phone gave me the door code. Once inside, I looked through the maps of neighborhoods to leave comics in, and I realized all the streets were far from headquarters. Again, I was without transportation and, quite honestly, growing a bit exasperated that my volunteer work was being hit with such obstacles. I could have been doing something more productive with my time and energy.

I almost left. Chalked it up to a good attempt—and at least I’d gotten in a good (and needed) run.

But something wouldn’t allow me to leave the office. On my phone I had the app for a car-sharing service—I could grab a car and drive to one of these neighborhoods. I don’t like to use that service casually, so was this moment “worth it?”

In other words, I could reasonably say I’d done my best and return home right then, or I could actually do what I’d set out to do because that action is truly important to me.

I chose the latter.

I’d moved from the black-and-white of yes-or-no into something more sustainable and useful across the board.

What is the ultimate goal? In this case, I wanted to get the word out about this issue and be active in this important election season.

Can it be achieved another way? I could have regrouped and canvassed another day or approached my goals in a different way, but I was already there and ready—the path of least resistance was right in front of me.

Might something more come of sticking with it? I knew that while I wouldn’t feel guilty for leaving, I also wouldn’t feel satisfied. Plus, by the time I was thinking about borrowing a car, I was already laughing about the day (and more funny fumbles were to come), so I had this sense it would make a good story. Sure enough, it did—thereby increasing the number of people I told and the impact of the comics.

These days, I’m trying not to think in competing terms of yes and no but in terms of what my goal is—what it really is—and how I can best achieve it.

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