“No” is More Than a Two Letter Word

by Joan Didion

Online re-mediation by Dauphine Sizer

There is a kind of morning when the world takes on for me the general aspect of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. The tulips on Park Avenue appear to be dirty. The mail contains a post card which touches me with malevolence because it is written in that vacant, untroubled backhand commonly affected by young women who wear sleeveless printed lawn blouses and Bermuda shorts. One friend exhibits his essential venality by failing to ask how I feel; another his pervasive banality by asking. Noli me tangere, sweetie.

hieronymusbosch
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch is known for his incredibly detailed and chaotic paintings that often portray a critique of society on various levels.

Although I would naturally prefer to think my malaise sympomatic of some acute moral superiority or perilously heightened critical faculty, this particular brand of disaffection is known, in more objective circles, by a depressingly clinical name. It happens to most of us some of the time; it happens to some of us most of the time. It is called repressed hostility, and it afflicts with most monotony those of us who most resemble Ira Gershwin’s Poor Jenny (bright as a penny), whose problem it was in twenty-seven languages she couldn’t say no.

We could scarcely feel hostile, after all, if we did not feel threatened.

To be unable to say no is eventually to feel coerced..

..so entirely at the mercy of others that the most casual or reasonable pressure—an invitation to dinner, a letter that calls for an answer—seems and unreasonable demand, one last grievance among the many with which one is asked to put up.

            All the while, we are nonetheless enmeshing ourselves in fresh webs of unwilling acquiescence. Of course we can be in Dallas Monday next, since you asked, although both love and money require that we be in New York; naturally you should come by for a drink in five minutes, although we are in bed, will have to send out for bourbon, and are reduced to quivering ennui by the very thought of you. Asked to do a favour for someone we do not much like, we will disappoint our families, miss appointments, rise from sick beds—because what excuse, however valid, could possible veil our real distate? If we are seated at dinner next to a man we have never before met and he begins a mild flirtation, we feel a certain nagging compulsion to behave as if the vichyssoise contained the potion brewed by Iseult’s mother; we appear to be forever overdoing things.

The crucial phrase here, however, is “appear to be.” Far from overdoing things, we who can not say no rarely do them at all. Once down to the wire, we seldom make it to Dallas on a Monday next. What we do instead is feel guilty that we did not.

The guilt, in at least one sense, is entirely deserved. In almost every instance, we have managed to cloud the issue with out oblique promises, tentative assurances, delicate deceptions, our compulsive variations on the theme she didn’t say yes but she didn’t say no.

An Article in Psychology Today On the Difficulty of Saying “No”

Backed to the wall, a young woman I once knew explained to an admirer that any more lasting arrangement was quite out of the question because he was in the habit of dictating letters at home and she, unlike his present wife, did not take shorthand. There was no need for me to ask how she had hit upon that particular explanation, or why she thought it was more plausible than the real one, which was simply that she did not feel one way or another about him. I knew even as she told me. Her own wishes, after all, scarcely seemed germane; this detail about this shorthand did. It had the sound of a problem one could put one’s finger on, had about it the air of reality that her own preferences or inclination so noticeably lacked. Somewhere along the way she had, in brief, lost touch with herself.

It is precisely this kind of breakdown of communication with oneself that underlies an incapacity for the straightforward no. It is possible to decide between desires and obligations; it is possible to decide between divergent desires. It is not possible—except arbitrarily—to decide between unknown quantities. Quite simply, to make up one’s mind requires knowing it.

Those who lack that sense of reality about their own present or future are naturally incapable of saying no; they can make, in fact, no decisions at all. Instead, they play roles, the more improbably the better. I recall thinking, one hot California July, that I wanted to marry a golf pro.golf1 It was not his charm, although he may even have had some; nor was it that we shared what marriage counselors sometimes call “a mutuality of interests.” It was precisely that we did not. Although my aversion to outdoor games normally approaches the pathological, he first endeared himself to me by assuming, when I once mentioned Joseph Conrad, that I had in mind a Lieutenant Joe Conrad who had that year won both the Trans-Mississippi and the Southern Amateur, the latter, if I recall correctly, by a six-to-four margin at Lakewood Country Club in Dallas. I instantly perceived the dramatic possibilities in my being the wife of a golf pro: it had overtones of Main Street and A Lost Lady and Follow the Sun and even Pylon, and I was so entranced that it took me some weeks to realize that not only did this particular gold pro have every intention of entering the Bank of America training program come September but he also had a fairly clear idea of who the other Joseph Conrad was, had even read Almayer’s Folly, which I had not. Once these and similar points were established, the spell was broken; the role had ceased to be playable, had threatened to present the same troubling uncertainties and ambiguities that characterized real life.

Whether our indecisiveness is chronic or occasional, those of us who harbour uncertainty as to what we want have, clearly, a vested interest in not finding out. It relieves us of the possibility of discovering that our feelings, in general or in regard to some one question, are something other than we might have hoped. As a counter agent devises a cover story, we devise situations that would seem to preclude the possibility of choice, remove the threat of responsibility. We like our stage directions clear: enter the wronged wife. If there is one thing irresistible to us, it is a good cross to bear; we are fatally drawn toward anyone who seems to offer a way out of ourselves. No one, of course, really does. At first attracted to those who seem capable of forcing the hand, we then resent their apparent refusal to understand us, their failure to be both Svengali and someone to watch over me.

theater1          There is a kind of dream—a nightmare, really—in which one is pushed onto a stage just as the curtain rises. Because it is too late to find out what the play is, let alone what part one is expected to play, one can only watch nervously for clues; could that cocker spaniel in the wings mean that someone is playing Elizabeth Barrett? Who? Why, in any case, is the orchestra playing the Pal Joey overture? And if the spaniel is accidental and the game really Pal Joey, what are those Lunts doing downstage? In mounting desperation, one scrutinizes the other actors, strains for possible cues, leaps miserably from improvisation to improvisation.


It is a dream that inevitably ends in cold panic, as does the malaise it so resembles. When we have so lost the sense of self that we have no idea what part we want to play, we feel compelled to succeed in every role offered—and end up succeeding in none. Oversensitized to every ambiguous cue, our performances emerge at best as brilliant improvisations. In no case do they bear even the most tenuous relation to our own wants, interests, or obligations. Incapable of perceiving exactly what we are, we try instead to be everything that’s asked of us—or, more accurately—everything that we think has been asked of us.

The irony is that we never really know. Our very anxiety gives us a peculiar selective deafness; listening obsessively for certain nuances in the lyrics, we never quite catch the tune. Should a friend call to say that she is ill, we wonder not what we can do for her but what she expects us to do for her; should someone say that he loves us, we respond not to him but to something we interpret as the claim in his voice.

Claim is a word that crops up in the inner vocabulary of someone who can’t say no with the approximate frequency that it does around the Metropolitan Life office. No claims on me: It gives us away, even to ourselves. Although the compulsively complaisant appear to be loving and generous to a fault, they are, in the most disabling sense, closed to the world. To be unable to say no is really to be totally egocentric: one wants to please only because pleasing alleviates one’s own angst.

Forced to please everyone, we usually end up pleasing no one—least of all those we should want most to please. It is easier to snarl at one’s husband than to tell a casual acquantance that one is too busy to see him; easier to disappoint one’s father than to refuse a favour to someone one scarcely knows. One’s husband and father, after all, can be won again; the rest of the world must be won now or not at all.

If we fail to discriminate between our real and imagined obligations, we become so paralyzed by the enormity of what seem to be the claims and cross-claims upon us that we are unable to meet even the most reasonable ones. There is no charm strong enough, no sedative potent enough, to enable us to be all things to all people; to try to be Hetty Green at four o’clock, Guinevere at five, and Caroline English at six is finally to forget whoever it is we see in the mirror. One finally loses all sense of one’s own wants and needs, comes to exist only in the approval of others. Something seems to have been mislaid, and it is futile to look in the drawer with the birth certificate, the passport, and the Book of Common Prayer inscribed by the Bishop; useless to call the lost-and-found, pointless to wonder whether one had it that day on the New Haven. The article lost would would be hard to describe. When did I last have my self?

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