Meditations on Saying No

1. Yes and no are like secret passwords that open different doors. To say no is not necessarily to miss an opportunity. Close a door and another opens; open one and another closes.

2a. No is more difficult to say than yes because it requires more energy upfront. Saying yes is sometimes a form of procrastination, to delay the expenditure of mental effort. In the long run, however, yes is frequently a form of commitment, and typically requires the expenditure of far greater sums of energy over time.

2b. No is a debit, yes a credit; and there is no more ruthless creditor than time.

3. A revolution is not a yes, but a no to no itself.

Yes and No Diagram

4a. To make a no more defensible, you must first say no to defending it.* An effective no is a black box; it offers the receiver no insight into whence it came. Remember that any reason you give for your refusal will be met with objections in favor of saying yes. Ask yourself, “Will this person demanding my acquiescence be at my funeral?” If not, it is rude for him or her to ask for an explanation. To these people, say simply, “No, thank you. I’m not interested in discussing this any further.”

4b. With family and close friends, my (too?) infrequent refusals typically appeal to my feelings for justification. Feelings are the great irreducible, or logic unmasked. Is anything less logical than a logical argument about how a person should feel? (Feelings are changed with feelings.) Alas, you will still hear these arguments, and to the philosopher of others’ feelings one can only reply, “You’re making me uncomfortable.”

5. Saying yes to yes is, in some sense, the default mode of civil society. Hence, the demand that every no carry a supporting argument. Too few of us are taught to say no, with the exception of extreme circumstances. The first refusals of a person who has never learned to say no are like small explosions, seemingly random and inexplicable. The fright to the recipient of such a no is nothing next to the fright of its speaker.

These moments of micro-violence can shake a person’s sense of identity. Take heart: learning to say no is about learning who we are not, which is as much a part of our identity as who we are. That first act of no reflects not the true self but the unself, which remains actualized within us so long as we submit to the infinite yes.

* I have in mind here sales people, marketers, casual acquaintances asking for favors, strangers—viz., anyone making a burdensome, unsolicited request. Note that there are certainly situations where refusals must carry some form of logical explanation, such as court decisions, the failure to fulfill an obligation, etc.

On Burnt Toast

Some toast is better charred,
That factory bread,
Unedified, white-washed,
Grains rolled smooth
as asphalt,
With nothing left to burn
But cynicism.



On the Feeling of Having Left the Oven On

Is everyone nagged by the feeling of having left the oven on, or the door unlocked, or the window open, or do these worries bother mostly those whose personalities predispose them to pessimism and self-doubt?

If the latter, are those plagued by such trivial worries less fervent in faith than those so certain that the oven is off, since it is thoroughly impossible that They could ever make such a silly mistake?

How can we trust in God if we do not trust in ourselves?

And yet, the oven may have been left on, the door unlocked, and the window ajar. Neuroticism is the personality trait most despised, but it is also the trait with the most obvious and immediate survival advantages, if present in moderation. Think of N. N. Taleb’s formula for antifragility, that state in which a thing not only resists but benefits from a stressor: “antifragility is the combination aggressiveness plus paranoia.”*

Whence benign paranoia if not from some healthy measure of neuroticism? The checklist is neuroticism’s finest monument, the contract its most sacred ritual, insurance its holiest temple.

Civilized society depends upon the worry over ovens.

Indeed, is it conceivable that an atrocity has ever been averted because its planner wondered if he had left the oven on, and so packed up the instruments of his confidence to hurry home?

Anxiety is the antidote to fanaticism.

And yet, and yet: One must be able to set foot out of the house, and there is perhaps no greater act of fanaticism than a first step.

see N. N. Taleb, Antifragile. (New York: Random House, 2012.) p. 161

Photography as Mindfulness Practice

Stop where you are! Can you take a great picture, right here and now, with only your cell?

I took Photography through high school and spent countless hours of my adolescence in the darkroom, then rarely took a photo for 15 years after graduating. Little has stuck with me, but this: The school had 3-4 SLR cameras which could be signed out, but exclusively for use on school property; they couldn’t be taken home. When students would complain about this to the instructor, citing the lack of inspirational scenery in the parking lot outside the classroom, he would inevitably reply, “I could walk out there right now and find a great picture in 5 seconds.”

My photography teacher was a short, enormous man with a kindly smile and a mild temperament. I took him at his word: I believe he really he could have stepped outside and found a great picture in 5 seconds. And I know that I lack that ability: I didn’t have it then and I don’t have it now. The temptation is to think, Well, but my camera doesn’t have enough megapixels or The lighting is poor or There’s nothing interesting to shoot.

More often than not, excuses of this sort are failures of imagination. Remember that creativity is born of constraint. If you can’t do anything with what you have here and now, then it wouldn’t really matter if you had the finest Leica camera at golden hour on the Serengeti; you would be equally ineffectual.

What I enjoy about photography, as a particularly amateurish amateur, is that it helps to cultivate mindfulness. You must get out of your head and pay attention to the details and possibilities that surround you. What are you seeing? What is the camera seeing? What does this moment feel like? To make the most out of the constraints you face, you must first see them as they are, not as you fear them to be.

A photographer, then, is at once both a prisoner and a prison guard. A photograph both captures and frees.