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On saying "no."


Shortly after learning to talk, children learn to say “no.” The ability to say no, beyond expressing a preference against something, is also their first experience of verbal control over the world. They are suddenly able to see their own thoughts influencing actions in a way that is unique to them, apart from what anyone else around them wants. Perhaps this is why they immediately begin to say no to everything, including things that they really meant to respond to with “yes”—the feeling of having made the decision yourself can be even more alluring in the moment than the actual outcome, and it clouds your judgement like an intoxicant. (For Sam Kriss on drugs, see here.)

Negation can sometimes help us understand as much as positive statements can; to define something, we need to know not only what something is but also what it is not. The Lord was not in the wind, and the Lord was not in the earthquake, and the Lord was not in the fire, but the Lord was in the still, small voice. To put something clearly is to put it in the starkest opposites: in “black and white” (as in chess; for Santi Ruiz’s reflection on the game, see here).

The dialectical method of reasoning—introducing two opposing ideas, arguing and counter-arguing them to their conclusion—builds entirely on the interaction between the negative’s response to the positive proposition. From Socrates to Hegel, philosophers have long respected the power of saying “no” to produce a better—or truer—“yes.” The ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang is just one more example of the complementarity of opposites. (For Lu Zhengxiang on how Chinese philosophy led him to Catholicism, see here.)

Of course, the proper response to something is determined by what that thing is, not by an abstract commitment to balancing the yeses and nos of the universe. Lucifer’s “no” to God is an attack on Truth; the opposite of Mary’s angelic “yes.” Or, as Saint Peter learned, when the servants and the ministers in the garden said to him: “Art not thou also one of his disciples? He denied it, and said: I am not.” (For Aníbal Sabater on a recent successor of Saint Peter, see here.)

As we grow older and more mature, we learn to take for granted the control a “no” brings. We can make decisions for reasons beyond simply the joy of having decided, and answer questions with respect to the outcomes indicated thereby. But most of us feel, especially as we age, that we have a long way to go in learning the most important “no” we can give: the “no” we must give to ourselves in the mirror each day, to our vanities and idle distraction. It takes constant effort, aided by the abundant grace of God, for a man to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Christ. “For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it.”

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