(Photo: Scott L. Wilson)
Teddy Roosevelt’s quote rings often in my ears:
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
And most of the time, this quote is what I need to hear. I need to take a step forward even when it’s risky and even when I might fail. Most often, courage looks like saying "yes" in my life.
But sometimes saying yes comes too easily for me. So many fascinating ideas, so many opportunities, so many events, so many people to meet. When I’m offered the chance to do something I enjoy or something that feels worthwhile, I’m tempted to say yes every time.
And I’ve become too busy. Busyness looks different on different people, but for me it looks like anxiety. When I’m too busy, my brain flits from one task to another without focus or joy. I feel overwhelmed and the joy of my many yeses drains away.
Yet I’m tempted to add still more. Recently, a friend recommended me as a speaker for a campus event about following Jesus in the academy. I love public speaking, I’m hoping to do more of it, and I’m passionate about the topic. Then yesterday I was asked to review a book on a topic I’m interested in, as a favor to a friend. Again, I enjoy reading and writing, and I’m hoping to review more books in the future.
Two opportunities to say yes to good things. Two opportunities that would build relationships and skills. Two yeses that could be good long-term investments. Two yeses that would add to my anxiety and over-full schedule.
I faced the same experiences in graduate school. It was always tempting to propose a conference paper, to apply for a summer program, to agree to another TA position. I said yes to these opportunities in order to gain knowledge, to develop relationships with professors, and to learn more about my field.
If I’m honest, I also said yes out of pride, out of a desire to grow my CV, and out of a desire to get ahead. Instead of focusing on my primary commitments to my coursework, research, and writing, I darted from one extra project to another.
I’m grateful for the conferences, the teaching and grading gigs, and the summer research. They shaped me in profound ways. But my degree took years longer than I expected. I took my eye off my requirements and added more and more yeses, thinking I could cram more and more in. It was an anxious time.
I don’t want to second-guess my last few years nor frame these amazing opportunities in pessimistic terms. But I do want to consider whether it is always courageous to say "yes."
I know I sometimes say yes out of fear. The fear is that this is my only shot. If I say that I can’t speak on campus, will I be asked another time? If I pass up an opportunity to write, does that mean I need more passion? If I forego a chance to grade for a professor, will she believe I don’t have what it takes?
Saying "no" requires trust. Saying no to more commitments, more responsibilities, and more busyness means trusting that other opportunities will come at other times. There is a time for everything, and now is the time for no. Now is the time to remember that God made me with limits, and these limits remind me that I’m the creature, not the Creator. God know my desires, my passions, and my anxiety.
Saying no creates space for God here and now. When I clear out some space in my mind and my life, I am more present to God and to those around me. And the commitments I have already made get the better part of me.
This Lent I’m saying "no" to all extra commitments. For me, it’s an act of courage.