My wife answered this figurative newspaper ad several years ago: "HELP WANTED. Desperately need someone to train me in the art of saying No."
"No" is such a fascinating word, isn’t it? It’s among our children’s very first and it continues tumbling out of toddlers’ mouths for years.
As parents, we teach our little ones not to say it. “Eat your vegetables. It’s time for a nap. You’ll keep our little doughnuts-for-dinner secret from mom?”
Then, when our children become teenagers, we want them to say it all the time. “Will you break curfew with me? Will you drink this beer? Will you tease the kid who’s different?”
Nothing would make me more proud than to know my two teenage daughters say the word a thousand and one times a day.
Years later, as adults, the word can become even tougher to say. “Can you help me move? Can you work late? Can I borrow a hundred bucks, even though you don’t really have it to loan? Can my nine kids and me stay with you for a week while visiting town, even though we’re third cousins twice removed and I can’t remember your first name?”
“Of course! What kind of cereal do you like?”
Does this sound like you or someone you know? Then you might also need a "No Coach." Frankly, I’m not sure how I ever survived without one.
For most of my career, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. “Will you speak at my small Baptist church 700 miles away with a dozen people in attendance? Will you donate 50 books to the library? Will you present an assembly to my school for free, even though you spoke to our rival school across town and they paid you for your time?”
It’s been so bad, even if I’d been asked to fly around the world and speak at the Kremlin — on my dime — I would have struggled to say, "Nyet."
But everything changed a couple of years ago when my wife answered that ad and became my No Coach. She was the perfect fit for the job because she loves me and despite my efforts to prove her otherwise, she still thinks I'm a swell guy. Evidently she likes having me around and for my children to know what I look like in person and not via Skype from three time zones away.
It wasn’t easy, but she taught me to weigh every opportunity and learn to say no. With her gentle but steady nudging, I’ve learned that sometimes no matter how great the cause or the conference, a polite no is the right answer.
“I wish I could come; my daughter has a recital that night and I missed the last two. I sincerely regret that I can’t help this time; my wife hasn’t had a date night in weeks. I really wish I could speak to your book club; my wife is scheduled for a C-Section that night and I’d like to be there.”
As I write this column, I realize I’m not the only one who needs a No Coach.
I have a dear friend — we’ll call her Sabrina — who lives near me and hasn’t had a weekend to herself in more than six months. Every single Saturday she’s helping someone move, driving a friend in need across the state or donating some vital organ. She has an extraordinarily difficult time saying no, and people around her know it. She’s become everyone's go-to-gal for service.
Thousands will read this column and the vast majority will never meet Sabrina, but if you needed anything, I’m certain you could call. Need to borrow a car? Need someone to mediate a family dispute? Need someone to race over and perform a tracheotomy with a Pixy Stix and the tiny tweezers from the Operation board game? She’ll happily say, “Yes!” and throw in a hug for good measure.
I love my sweet friend, but just like the rest of us who struggle to say no, each time she says yes, isn't she also saying no to someone else?
Likewise, every time we say no and put our family's needs first, we’re really saying yes to those who matter most.
It's natural to want to say yes, especially for Christians wired to serve at the drop of a scripture verse. And it's natural to regret having to decline wonderful causes and opportunities to serve, but is there a greater cause or opportunity than our spouses and children? It’s easy to get lost in serving those at a distance and neglect the ones standing right at our side.
Despite my wife's best efforts, I'm sure I still say yes much more than I probably should. And, as a result of this column, I'll likely get a dozen new requests and probably agree to the majority of them.
Still, I’m grateful for the perspective that my personal No Coach has provided me. She understands that by saying no more often, I'll have more energy to say yes when it matters most.
Yes or no, do you need your own No Coach?
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of eight books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The Wedding Letters." He can be reached at [email protected] or www.jasonfwright.com.