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'Tis The Season To Say Yes

This holiday season has been as dense as a sodden fruitcake, packed into 26 short days between Thanksgiving — folded this year with Hanukkah — and Christmas. It is overlapping parties and too few hours of sleep. It is a timeless question in extremis: When to say no?

The answer is never straightforward. It is a negotiation between what we want and what we hope to avoid. It is expectation, stress, health, love. It is who we’d like to be and who we really are. And all of this over a cocktail party.

But especially when our time is most limited, it is important to define what our time is for. More pointedly, it is vital to understand when we say “no,” what we are refusing.

More often than not, however, if we are honest with ourselves, the reasons for “no” are more like excuses. More often than not, it is mostly, “I’m not sure how I’ll feel.” In these circumstances, advice from a college professor may be helpful: Just go.

But especially when our time is most limited, it is important to define what our time is for.

The wisdom was extended 10 years ago, during a lecture for a sociology course titled “Death and Dying,” one of the most popular at my Jesuit university; the discussion was on funerals. “People engineer in their minds all sorts of reasons for not attending,” the professor said, “but they usually boil down to this: ‘I won’t know what to say, or how I’ll feel.’ Simply say you’re sorry for the family’s loss,” he said. “And just go.”

It is an odd parallel, parties and funerals. But the commonality is this: in all circumstances, both joyful and sad, we fear walking into a room without knowing who we will find — in others, and especially, in ourselves.

A few years ago, in a new city, the spectre of childhood shyness drove me to turn down an invitation I received to a baby shower. I didn’t know the women well; I wasn’t sure if I would have fun; I was worried I would be too busy. It was the sort of event I had often avoided.

But the morning of, I buttressed myself with my professor’s words, refusing to overthink it.

The person I found conversed and laughed easily, asked questions, shared stories, stayed until the end. That person has earned her words and confidence.

No, we can’t, we shouldn’t, always say yes. But if we do, against fear, we may find community where we thought it was impossible, connection where we thought it was lost, and ourselves.

The decision, and the discovery, has reverberated: last weekend, at a holiday gathering I helped plan, I sat among a group of friends and spouses who grew out of that shower and reflected on how it used to feel, before I recognized who I had grown to become: someone who can make herself at home even in uncertainty.

No, we can’t, we shouldn’t, always say yes. But if we do, against fear, we may find community where we thought it was impossible, connection where we thought it was lost, and ourselves. And when we fail to find anything of the sort, we find strength in knowing we didn’t avoid the question. Happiness, it turns out, is about more than going where we know the answer.

So I say this: Just go. You can sleep when you’re dead — or in January.

This program aired on December 19, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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