Sunday, October 3, 2010

Dancing in Relationships Between Yes and No

In the British comedy series The Vicar of Dibley, the 102 year old vicar dies in the middle of a service. They begin looking for a new vicar. They call Geraldine, one of the first women to be ordained in the Church of England and a fun loving, straight talking woman. Most of the show’s action takes place in the meetings of the parish council which is made up of a collection of oddballs. There is the farmer who always comes in to meetings late and gives way too much information about his cows’ bowel movements. Then there is Jim who has a speech impediment. He has the habit of prefacing everything he says with the stuttered “no, no, no, no, no…..” This gets him in all sorts of trouble. Jim tells the story of when he was a contestant on Deal or No Deal. He was presented with the ultimate choice and asked the question, deal or no deal? He wanted to take the deal, but stuttered “no, no, no, no, no…deal.” He lost the million dollars.

As you can imagine decision making is difficult on the parish council with Jim involved. When they call for a vote, he says, “No, no, no, no, no….yes.” Talk about waiting for the deeper yes. He does introduce the theme nicely, as there is often a “no” or even a series of “nos” that reveals a deeper “yes”. I want to explore the relationship between “no” and “yes”, and offer some ways that you can work with your “yes” and “no” for a greater purpose, especially in your relationships.

Whether it’s a romantic relationship, family, colleague or friend, we all have to say “no” from time to time. Most of us find this hard and we often end up feeling guilty. Your adult child wants to borrow money again and you say “no” because you don’t want to enable him and you want him to take responsibility. Your young child wants to stay up late and you say “no” because you want to protect her from being tired the next day. Your spouse wants to have sex and you say “no” because you have a headache. Your colleague wants you to take on some of their work and you say “no” because you are already overwhelmed.

Give yourself permission to say “no”. Reclaim the power of “no” without guilt. It’s a beautiful thing- for you, for the other person and for the relationship. It offers everyone involved the gift of self responsibility. When you have clear reasons and a clear strategy for saying “no” it becomes a very positive and empowering experience.

Knowledge Supports No

One of the tools at your disposal when it comes to saying “no” is knowledge. When you are informed about a situation, you are prepared to say “yes” or “no” or even “I don’t know” without guilt. We’ve seen a brilliant example of this during the week with the release of the Pew Study on American religious knowledge. The study showed that on the whole, America atheists know more about world religions than Christians.

More than 40% of Catholics don’t know that the bread and wine “become” Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. About half of all Protestants don’t know that Martin Luther was the prime move in the Protestant reformation and split from Catholicism. And 64% of Americans think that the right to bear arms is one of the Ten Commandments. Well I made that one up, but you could be forgiven for thinking it the way some Americans defend their personal liberty with religious zeal.

What is this study revealing? At least two very significant points. The first is that atheists often carefully study what they eventually reject. In other words, they gather knowledge in order to say “no” to religion. I have deep respect for anyone who says “no” after doing their homework and gathering knowledge. The deeper “yes” that many atheists are claiming is rationalism. Maybe it’s even a quality that you aspire to. As long as your clear cut “no” is not disrespectful of others, it’s a very healthy thing.

Saying “No” With Respect

We had a great learning situation in our family this past week. We were sitting around the dinner table, and our youngest disappeared for a moment, then reappeared with a piece of paper. She wrote a word on it, and said, “Why is it so bad to say this word?” It was the word “hell”. We asked her why she was asking. She explained that at school that day a friend had written the word, another kid had said that it’s wrong to write that word and then our daughter (God love her) asked why. She was told that if you say or write the word “hell” you could end up in hell. What a terrifying thing for 8 year olds to believe!

We then had an awesome conversation. We first talked about what a frightening idea hell was. Then we talked about evidence. There is no evidence for the existence of hell. Because there is no evidence for hell, then you are free to say “no” to hell. We talked about evidence and knowledge and the freedom to reject an idea and it was all very positive.

The next night, there was some follow up. Our daughter had gone to school that day and told her friends that there is no hell. Just like that. My little sweetie popped the bubble on two thousand years of mythology and social control through fear. For her this was good news and it made sense to share it evangelically. For her friends, it clashed with their family and church upbringing. So then we had another awesome conversation about how we can say “no” to hell and still respect that other people might choose to believe in hell. You can say “no” from your perspective or even “I don’t know” and still acknowledge that it’s an important “yes” for another person. You can assert your “no” without damaging the relationship.

Knowledge and Hell

What is the evidence for hell? Well no one has come back from the dead to describe it, so there is no first hand evidence. The only evidence is what is written in the Bible, and this is sketchy and ambiguous. It was centuries after Jesus that hell became institutionalized in the Christian church. Origen was one of the most significant fathers of the early Christian church. In the 3rd century he was still speaking about hell as a place where sinners could be rehabilitated. The Council of Constantinople in 543 rejected Origen’s view. From that time forward, western Christianity was divided between two perspectives; the majority who believed in hell as eternal punishment, and the minority who believed in a one-time annihilation of sinners.

Even the teaching of Jesus is ambiguous when it comes to hell. Matthew 10:28 speaks of the body and soul being destroyed in hell. The word that is used for hell is Gehenna. Gehenna was a valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It was notorious as a place where some had practiced child sacrifice to Molech. It was also used as a place to dump the bodies of executed criminals. Because of this dark history, it became a garbage dump. At the time of Jesus there would have been continuous fires burning to consume the city’s garbage. Dogs lurked around the fires waiting for scraps of food. When the dogs fought over the food, they would have made the sound of gnashing of teeth.

It’s possible that Jesus was referring to this location when he spoke of hell. He wanted to describe the most tortured human experience; and the image of Gehenna captured something of the terror of the experience.

It’s tragic that so many people have been held in fearful captivity to a doctrine of such dubious origins. Bolstered with this knowledge about hell, we are in a solid position to say “no” to the frightening idea of a place of eternal torment.

So maybe that’s our first clue for saying “no” without anyone losing power. Gather evidence and express yourself respectfully. This applies not just to a religious perspective that you may be rejecting, but also to relationship situations that are hellish and a clear “no” may be required.

Intuition and No

Use evidence to claim your “no”. But there are other ways of knowing, apart from rational evidence. Some things just don’t feel right in your gut. Your intuition says “no” and you need to listen to this inner wisdom just as carefully as you study facts and evidence. This is important because some people can be very smooth and charming, and it’s sometimes hard to see evidence when you are in the middle of a dysfunctional relationship but you know deep down that you have to say “no”. Follow the lead of your inner wisdom. Its resistance is telling you something, even if it’s just to slow down and ask some questions.

The same applies to your beliefs. Maybe you are agnostic about a lot of religious beliefs, based on a lack of evidence or a gut sense. Follow this sense at least long enough to ask questions and think it through.

There are so many aspects of conventional religion that I reject because of a combination of knowledge and intuition. I see no evidence for a judgmental God, but more important it doesn’t feel right to me. I see no evidence for hell, but more important it doesn’t feel right in my gut that some people would suffer eternally because they were born in a certain culture or hold certain beliefs. There is no evidence that one religion is correct and all the other religions are misguided, but more important its counter intuitive to me.

I combine the evidence with my inner guide and say “no” to hell, judgment and exclusivism.

Loyalty and No

I have spoken about the atheist saying “no” to religion, but let’s look at the other side of the Pew Study. Why are some believers so ignorant of world religions? There are lots of possible reasons for this, and one of them is that Americans are generally not knowledgeable about the rest of the world. I have lost count of the number of Americans I have met who don’t know that the seasons are opposite in the Southern Hemisphere. When you think about it, which they clearly haven’t, this displays a lack of understanding of what seasons are to begin with; the revolution of a round earth around the sun. None of these people believe in a flat earth, but for some reason haven’t followed the logical next step of their worldview.

So maybe the ignorance of world religions is part of an ignorance about the world generally, and also an ignorance about what religion is to begin with; a revolving, time bound attempt by certain cultures to make meaning out of life. Certainly not something to be dogmatic about.

My theory is that people get caught up in loyalty to religious beliefs. Loyalty to the tribe (and maybe also country) trumps both knowledge and intuition. This explains why it’s so traumatic for many people to say “no” to particular beliefs. When loyalty gets in the way of authenticity, abuse is often the result. Think about abusive relationships where people can’t say “no” because they feel obliged to the relationship. Co-dependent relationships, whether relationships with God, friend or spouse, are built around mindless loyalty rather than a deeper respect and responsibility.

Finding the Deeper Yes

Whether you are leaving a relationship, a job or a religion, it’s important to understand the deeper “yes” guiding your decision. This is all important as it guides how you will live your life. Some people say “no” to relationships, but never move past the “no” and live their life in bitterness. Some people, including some atheists, never get past their rejection of religion and live their life in negativity. Maybe rationalism is a deeper “yes”, but I want something deeper still. Don’t you? I want a deeper yes that my whole being: mind, body and spirit, sings in concert.

I want the deeper “yes” that convicted Rosa Parks to sit down at the front of the bus. Her “no” to the bus driver was coming not just from exhaustion and not just from anger, but from a deeper, intuitive sense that she is a valuable human being and worthy of respect. Her decision to listen to her deeper yes changed her life and changed the lives of millions of people ever since, including you and me.

The “yes” that you can say in relationships is an affirmation of your worth and dignity as a human being. You deserve to be treated well. You deserve beliefs that are life affirming and build confidence. You deserve the most respectful relationships and the most empowering beliefs. Accept nothing less. Say “no” to anything less.

Choosing Your Company

The choice of company is one of the most important decisions you make. Choose company that affirms your worth and dignity. Choose company that is open to questions and change. Measure everything you hear and read by evidence, by intuition and by your deeper yes. Does it resonate with your deepest vision for the world? Does it make your life more whole and healthy? Does it strengthen your relationships? If you are saying “yes” to these questions, then you know you have arrived home.

Think of your spiritual community as a place to practice being human. More than that, see your spiritual community as a place to strive to be the person you were always destined to be. Ask questions in good and safe company. Build relationships that are healthy and respectful. Practice taking responsibility and setting healthy boundaries.

How will you know if you are growing, spiritually? You will say “no” with ease and it won’t threaten your relationships. It will open up paths you have long sought to the deeper yes that lies within.

I honor the person that you are; worthy of dignity and respect. From my deeper “yes” to yours. Namaste.


U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey

The Power of a Positive No: Save The Deal Save The Relationship and Still Say No

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