My late cousin was the worst. She was the most unselfish woman on the planet, devoting all her time and her considerable energy to volunteer activities that benefited seniors, the library, civic causes, the charity thrift shop. She battled hunger and poverty. She won accolades and gratitude from every direction. All well and good. BUT—she constantly tried to enlist everyone else, including me, to live their lives the way she did. I get it. She cared passionately about all these causes, so passionately that it was inconceivable that anyone else could have any other priorities, any other agenda. Her most effective ploy was “We need you.” Now, who doesn’t want to be needed? It’s flattering. She would embellish that by saying that my skills were exactly what was most lacking, the one skill that no one but I could provide. And, I admit, at first I fell for it. I joined a volunteer board of trustees that was in my field. That wasn’t enough. She always wanted more. She even chided me for dropping out of the library’s book club. She was afraid if membership fell off, the club would disband. But, why was it my responsibility, or even hers, to keep it going? If there’s not enough interest, you can’t prop it up artificially. (As it turned out, the book club is just fine and thriving.) If I declined her requests, as I began to do, she would enlist other people to do the asking. Now, I loved my cousin. I respected and admired what she did. But (again, a “but”), I wanted to write. And being committed to writing means I must, want to, and will say “no” to other things, whether it’s controlling my insatiable urge to read, or balancing alone time with the human need to socialize, or saying “no” to requests for “help” like the ones presented to me by my cousin.
Of course, there are cases where, in fact, you can’t say no. If you’re a parent, or if you have animals that depend on you, or if you have a job that you need to earn money. Your health and safety. Those demands will always require a “yes.” All the extraneous requests? You can choose.
Here’s the thing: many, many people can, and do, perform the work of these volunteer groups. On the other hand, no one can do my writing but me. If I don’t do it, it will never get written. My work may be meaningful or not. It may be effective, inspiring, entertaining, or not. Yet, if I forego writing, who will do it for me? No one. I can’t say, “Okay, I’ll sort the clothes for the homeless, while you write my next mystery story.” It doens’t work that way. Still, it’s hard to say “no.” We have to learn to say it with kindness and politeness, but with firmness, or at least the ability to keep saying it until our message gets heard. I saw an anonymous quote that helps me. “It’s easy to say “no” when there’s a deeper “yes” burning inside.” I’m not sure it’s ever easy, but remembering my deeper “yes” strengthens me when I’m tempted by the agendas of others.