The Courage to Say No

I am slowly reading Flann O’Brien’s Irish classic, The Third Policeman. Slowly, because of his complex circumlocution, or rather, that of his characters, all of whom have a long-winded way of saying things. When eventually they do get to the point, it is rather unclear what that point might be, which, in itself might be the point: an attempt at examining and presenting our incomprehensible existence. Enough of all that. The point I want to get to, is that of the character of Old Mathers. Old Mathers appears as a ghost who has been bludgeoned to death by the nameless protagonist (and accomplice) using by a hollow iron bar and a spade. The protagonist then comes across Old Mathers when searching for the box of money for which he was murdered in the first place. In the course of a page of dialogue between the two of them, it becomes clear (and not much else does) that Old Mathers answers every question put to him in the negative: ‘No’; ‘I do not’; ‘I am not’; ‘I will not’; etc., etc. When asked directly, ‘Why do you always answer No?’ he has a lot to say about it.

“I discovered that everything you do is in response to a request or a suggestion made to you by some other party either inside you or outside. Some of these suggestions are good and praiseworthy and some of them are undoubtedly delightful. But the majority of them are definitely bad.” [later] “I therefore decided to say No henceforth to every suggestion, request or inquiry whether inward or outward. It was the only simple formula which was sure and safe. It was difficult to practise at first and often called for heroism but I persevered and hardly ever broke down completely. It is now many years since I said Yes. I have refused more requests and negatived more statements than any man living or dead. I have rejected, reneged, disagreed, refused and denied to an extent unbelievable.” [and finally] “The system leads to peace and contentment. People do not trouble to ask you questions if they know the answer is a foregone conclusion. Thoughts which have no trouble of succeeding do not take the trouble to come into your head at all.” (The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien, Page 31)

What a bundle of joy Old Mathers is! (And that is not all he has to say on the subject of saying no; I have cut a lot out. Check it out in detail if you have the book). His diatribe makes me laugh, for I am able to recognise the ghost of the ghost of Old Mathers in a few people I know. And fair play to them, to some degree, for saying no to what they don’t want to do. I am not advocating Old Mathers’ continental quilt approach to the No response; I do not at all think to retort in the negative should be as involuntary as breath itself. Hailing, as I do, from a place that was famous for saying No, I have seen at first hand its divisive nature. In the mid-eighties. ‘Ulster Says No’ was used as a provocative slogan. Emblazoned across public buildings it perpetuated anger, hurt and murder. It was No use.

Ulster’s extreme version of No, the fingers-in-the-ears, I’m-not-going-to-talk-about-it, I-refuse-to-think-about-it No, seems to be the same flavour as that of Old Mathers’. His is a route to opt out of life entirely, it is a refuge, a sign (surely) of an inability to cope with the vicissitudes of life. But an unchecked propensity to say Yes incessantly can be all of those things too. Particularly if that Yes is delivered only with a view to please others, to be rewarded, to look good, or to avoid punishment. The people-pleasing Yes is the very worst and little good comes from it, not least to oneself, eaten up by doing something you don’t want to do. Of course, there will be things we don’t want to do yet we must (take the car for the MOT, unblock the drains, deal with your child’s head lice), but there are plenty of other things we are conditioned into saying Yes to, believing it to be the ‘right thing’ – but is it? Is Old Mathers onto something if we take his approach and dilute to taste? How noble or wholesome can an act be if we are doing it under duress, through gritted teeth, with heat palpitations? Surely it’s better then, to say no?

This morning these musings coalesced when I opened an email from M. who introduced me to a new word that articulates the very concept I have been skirting around in my own thoughts but not quite managing to pull together. He introduced me to Memnoon, an Arabic word for taking joy from meeting other people’s needs. The ideas is that saying yes to helping someone is a gift to you, the helper, the visitor, the caregiver, the listener. And, if it is not a gift, then you should not be doing it. You might think this is the perfect out for those of us who couldn’t be bothered to do the ‘right thing’; that this Memnoon palaver is the road to selfishness, but the wisdom of Memnoon says we end up acting with a lot more integrity, we choose to say Yes to most of what is asked of us and (here’s the trick) we enjoy it instead of bearing it.

Old Mathers, it seems, might have been on to something all along. May you be blessed with the courage to say no.

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