By Christina Capecchi
Rachel Gardner has a bad habit: She says yes when she ought to say no.
A friend will ask to do lunch on Wednesday.
“I say, ‘of course,’” Rachel recounts, “and in my head, I can see my totally squashed schedule.”
The friend asks if noon works.
“I say, ‘Sounds great,’ knowing I have something at 1:30 p.m.,” Rachel confesses.
Then comes the moment she knows she should leave their lunch, but she hesitates to cut the time short – “time I didn’t have in the first place.”
So she stays 10 minutes longer, which means, fast as she may drive, she cannot make up that time, she cannot pull off an impossible magic trick, and now she is 10 minutes late to her next commitment. All the while her chest is constricting, stuck in that torture chamber between the odometer and the clock – left, right, left, right, tick, tock, tick tock.
“I’ve been in that place a million times,” said Rachel, a Catholic young adult from Austin, Texas. That feeling of mounting pressure is so familiar that it compelled her to blog about it earlier this month.
The truth emerged: “I’m not staying with my friend because I’m being really loving. I’m staying because I’m anxious about saying, ‘Hey, I have to go.’”
The behavior, she determined, stems from a faulty belief that her friend can’t handle a no, that Rachel is that important. “It’s taken me a while to learn that no one benefits when you overbook yourself,” she said.
The crux of her blog post was Matthew 5:37, a Scripture verse she turned into an Instagram doodle with Sharpies and pretty cursive, punctuated with arrows and underlines: “Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”
“We’re up against a lot right now as young adults,” Rachel said. It’s not just the number of invitations and expectations; it’s the pace at which they arrive. “In our now-generation, everyone expects an answer immediately.”
Giving herself time to respond helps. Sometimes that means ignoring the ever-urgent ping of a text. For important decisions, she waits it out “one day and one Mass.”
Rachel was on a retreat in college when she first heard this truism: “When you say yes to one thing, you say no to another.” She says her mind was “blown.”
Now she tries to pause and consider what necessary no’s will result from a yes she is planning to extend. “My mission is not to say yes all the time. It’s to say, ‘What is God’s will for today?’”
One semester in college, that meant dropping out of a comparative literature class called “The Mirror & The Self” that covered all the great autobiographies, starting with “Confessions” by St. Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rosseau. The class was fascinating, but Rachel simply didn’t have the free hours that semester to keep up with the reading.
“It was a great decision. Not only did I then have a realistic work load, but that semester became a huge turning point in my faith life. Who knows how much time I would have lost reading really worthy autobiographies while my own living autobiography laid idle?”
Today that mature faith informs her work as a therapist, helping others own up to the consequences of their yeses and no’s. Rachel is able to address the challenge because she’s worked “tenaciously” to be honest with herself about her grievances, to be honest before God.
The outcome is powerful: avoiding all those uncomfortable yeses, accepting the difficult no’s and respecting others. “This path not only leads to a more generous love but also to true freedom.”
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of SisterStory.org.