The power of No

In my last post, I touched on the basic, physical and mental aspects of self-care, and one thing I mentioned in passing was saying No. I wanted to look at this in a bit more detail.

We live in a culture where ‘No’ has a bad rap. We’re supposed to be all about acceptance, about positivity, about saying Yes to whatever life throws at us. There have even been books written around the notion of actually, practically saying Yes to any request or suggestion.

Ah, but sorry, folks, life isn’t like that.

Kabbalah, the esoteric Jewish mystical tradition, has an interesting take on how we came to exist. Initially, they say, God was everything there was. And he wanted to make a universe. But where could he make it, if he was all there was?

So in his infinite wisdom, God withdrew. He emptied a part of himself, made a space where there wasn’t God, and that was where he sent the divine spark of energy that eventually (after descending down through ten vessels, and shattering them en route, which is why nothing’s perfect) became the material universe we know and live in.

This process by which God emptied himself, made a boundary, said No to being Everything so that something else could be Something, is called in Hebrew tzimtzum, ‘contraction’. It’s not just a feature of Kabbalah. The regular creation story in the Torah has God drawing boundaries – light from dark, day from night, heaven from earth, sea from dry land – all the way through.

If you want something less mythological, consider how the human body forms. Every cell in our bodies contains the total DNA code to make all of us – and in early embryos, every cell is pluripotent: any cell can become any kind of tissue (which is why stem cell research is such a big deal). But if cells retained that ability, they couldn’t form a body with coherent parts. Instead, under the influence of chemical pathways, cells ‘switch off’ the genes they don’t need as they develop, so they end up only able to express themselves as skin, nerve, blood or whatever. They say No to being anything else.

Similarly, look at how hands form. An embryo’s hand at first looks more like a flipper, a little featureless nubbin of flesh. The cells that will become the fingers continue to grow and develop, but the ones in between, die off. So that we don’t end up looking like the Man from Atlantis, chemical signals say No to everything that isn’t ‘finger’, rather like Michelangelo cutting away every part of the marble block that wasn’t ‘angel’.


And so we get to our own creativity, where we also shade the background so the design can stand out, cut away the fabric so we can see the pattern pieces, leave spaces so that the notes can sound, cut out paragraphs so we can make sense of the words that remain. It’s the same process.

Saying No has another significance, though. That’s in making room for creativity itself.

Creating boundaries. Saying:

No, I can’t work late this week.
No, I cannot deal with one more dramatic phone call.
No, I don’t need to watch that toxic news channel.
No, I don’t want to date you right now.
No, I cannot bail you out again…

….so that we can do something better, something more fulfilling, with the space that’s left.

And it works the same way in the larger world, when we collectively say:

No, we will not be led into another pointless war.
No, we will not let you scapegoat these innocent people.
No, we refuse to countenance your lies.
No, you do not get to harm the people we love.
No, this planet is not yours to do what you will with.

That’s a bigger refusal. And we shouldn’t forget that not everyone has the privilege of saying No, personally or politically, and that consent (not just the sexual kind, although that’s pretty important) is still, for some people, fraught with issues of coercion and necessity and the least worst option. Not everyone has a free choice.

But where we can say No to whatever’s harmful or useless or (like God) just taking up too much room for anything else to exist…we should. Because that’s how we carve ourselves out a place for something better.

So if there’s a small No that needs saying in your life, say it. Remember that you don’t have to explain it, that No is a complete sentence. And then, see if the space left by that No doesn’t allow you the possibility of a more interesting Yes.

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