08/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Spiritual Toolbox: "Yes" Begins by Saying "No"

Over the next few weeks I am going to post excerpts from a course series I've led with my good friend Debra Satterwhite called "Spiritual Toolbox." Today's blog is Part One of "Saying 'Yes' Begins by Saying 'No.'"

I keep a quotation taped to my bathroom mirror so that I can read it every morning. It's from the great African-American preacher, Howard Thurman. Thurman said this:

Don't ask what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive
and do that
because what the world needs
is people
who have come alive!

These words remind me that I am not called to be available to say "Yes" to every need that comes my way. That kind of living is -- as I once heard it described -- like being a dog at a whistlers' convention, responding to everyone's whistle! Like that dog, I often feel I should say "Yes" when someone asks; there are so many good causes and good people around me in need of help every day. Besides, like most of us, I have been taught that good people always say "Yes"; good people are always available.

When I served as an intern at the Home for Women and Children on the Diné (Navajo) Reservation, my Navajo supervisor, offered me my first lesson in Diné etiquette. It was a lesson about availability.

The afternoon of that first day, we got into a pickup she had borrowed and took a long drive in silence. After about half an hour of kicking up dust and evading ruts, she turned into a family compound. Two government-issue cinder block houses, a hogan and a sheepfold marked the site. Our truck was greeted by an explosion of barking dogs. I reached for the door handle.

"Doh da."

I jumped. The abruptness of her voice startled me.

Her voice was stern. "You must not do that. If you open that door and step out of this truck, those dogs will attack you. More importantly, it is not polite. This is my friend's home. I will honk the horn. She may not be home. She may be here, but not for us. She will decide if she is home to us today. If we are interrupting something that she is doing that is important to her, she will ignore us. If that is so, we will honor her wishes and drive away. If we are welcome, she will come out and call off her dogs."

I asked whether she had phoned her friend to let her know we were coming. She looked surprised. "She doesn't have a phone. Most Diné don't."

Then she honked. I saw the white curtains in a front window move aside for an instant then quickly drop back into place. We waited. The front door opened, and a smiling woman approached our truck. The dogs gathered obediently at her heels. My supervisor opened her door and slid out of the seat. She motioned to me to do the same. Then the two Diné women began to talk in the low tones of their language.

These two friends taught me about being present to the task at hand. They taught me to consider my availability carefully, and to pause before I rushed unthinking to answer the door or the phone or to say "Yes."

What I've also discovered is that my "Yes" sometimes does not allow anyone else the opportunity to say their own "Yes." If I have said "Yes," why should anyone else volunteer? On the other hand, when I have had the courage to disappoint someone and say "No" because the request does not fit my gifts or timing, a space is opened for someone else's "Yes," for someone else who might not otherwise step forward, for someone else to live into their own gifts. "No" gets me out of the way, and lets others have an opportunity. "No" reminds me that I have to trust in the larger picture; I'm not in charge.

In the years since my time on the reservation, I have always told my staff that I would rather have a solid "No" than a mushy "Yes" when we have a task at hand. Someone who gives me a "Yes" answer, but who is less than whole-hearted about it, often won't come through because s/he is overbooked, resents the work, or wants to be the center of attention. And I quickly become wary of asking again. On the other hand, people who can say "No" are people I can approach again. This is because people who can say "No" are generally clear about their priorities, limits and gifts. Because they are clear, I know that when they do say "Yes" they are wholeheartedly able to put their energy to the task before us.

Next: Saying "Yes" Begins by Saying "No" -- How to Conduct an Inventory