A kind soul nominated me to give a TED speech a few months ago. I almost made the cut, but got the axe in the end. At the very last stage of approval, the TED committee said “no” to what I wanted to say about the word “No.”
Fitting, I guess, having “no” turned on a speech about the word ‘NO.’ But, this very blog proves a good, sturdy “NO” can even stop a “NO.” With all respect for TED (I dig y’all, knowing you can’t say yes to all of us), I’m saying NO to the committee’s NO! I’m going to give the speech right here, for the world to read. I think it’s an “idea worth spreading” anyway. NO hard feelings.
At the University of Pennsylvania in 1967, some researchers did something maddeningly unethical. Yet with results revealing some hard truths about how we see the world, and too often get stuck in it.
Their results remind us we all have a voice, and most of us need to apply more of it to that single word that has changed the world.
Yes, the word is NO. Yes, just a fraction of a breath will say it. But it’s a revolution. No — said and meant — has near superhuman strength.
Back to those researchers. They actually took to shocking dogs. Yoking dogs together and delivering electric shocks. Terrible thing to do. And the research concluded that a dog who believes he can’t avoid the shock — can’t do anything to govern or escape it — will begin to show signs of clinical depression, similar to humankind. The dog learns to feel helpless.
The dogs couldn’t say “NO!” Most people can. Yet, too many won’t.
Learned helplessness afflicts humankind with the same tragic force. It’s the scourge of people who feel trapped. Lashed to some despair. Rather than say NO to some darkness, they quietly wither under the absence of light. A resolute NO is the door they refuse to open. Reeling in the dank of helplessness seems safer than living in the light. They refuse to rise up and LIVE it. They won’t throw open a word as liberating as it is small.
In human cultures, there’s likely no more tragic example of learned helplessness — and the unused power of NO — than domestic abuse. Intimate partner violence.
In such corners of human brokenness, where secrets and victims go huddle and hide, NO is a tonic. An antidote to the sickness of enduring victimhood.
We’re called not merely to say NO. We’re called to thrive in it, way out loud.
Now, before we run deeper into that intimate partner violence, look at the word. One syllable. Hardly that. Yet it lies too little used by nearly all of us. Demeaned as impolite. Indicted as a threat to our relationships, when, in fact, it is often the only word that can heal a relationship of dysfunction. Alas, though, NO stays shut out of our minds. Locked off our tongues. We don’t dare, when daring is called for.
And, so, we remain captives to the moldy old ways of doing and enduring the same things, expecting different results. Madness, isn’t it? Einstein thought so. And he really adored saying NO to giving up. He lived it.
So did Martin Luther King Junior. He said NO. He lived it. He lived out a NO to oppression and a NO to violence, and he changed the world.
Nelson Mandela did likewise. He lived his own NO to South African Apartheid. He dared his way through a crunching captivity, yet liberated — and was liberated — by the resolute living of NO.
Because courageous men lived the simple word, countless people live in a great light.
Mother Teresa knew it, too. She witnessed searing poverty and said NO. She lived intolerant of people living and dying with indignity. Her NO matters to this moment, long after the breath went out of her.
Such legacies of NO are immortal.
NO, lived with daring compassion, is a beautiful INTOLERANCE. Perhaps the only great intolerance known to humankind.
It calls to us all, with a period at the end.
And, yet, there it stands, unspoken. NO is that deeply human inner door unlocked, yet unopened, holding back the light craved by broken human relationships around the world. Around the corner. Perhaps in the next room.
In 1965, a woman tried to wake her husband off the sofa of their modest house in Arden, North Carolina. He was drunk. It took hardly a second for him to spring from his intoxicant sleep and pin her to the floor. He beat her unmercifully. Beat her until blood flew about the room and into the face of their three year old son, who cried the wordless cry a child will cry for help. Such a cry is often a child’s most articulate NO! So often unheeded.
This stalwart, wounded mother answered. She lifted the husband off herself, crawled to the child, scooped him and ran to a bedroom. Nurtured and calmed him, wiped her blood from his face. She restored calm to his pulse and her own and gave the illusion of order.
And, she stayed.
For the next decade and a half, she stayed with a man who was episodically violent. A man whose alcoholism only worsened.
But she stayed. Learned helplessness tragically afflicted a strong, bright, regal woman.
Fearing what others might say, and for a slew of other destructive reasons, she refused to say, and mean, NO. Locked in what looked like a spiral she couldn’t control, she wouldn’t live up to the NO that was at hand. She would not reach for what NO demanded of her. She felt helpless. Anxious. Depressed. She was, at times, an emotionally dead woman, living in a threat of mortal death too much of the time.
NO was her calling. NO was her doorway, rattling to get thrown open, right off the hinges. NO was her portal of freedom. Her revolution, in waiting.
And I finally threw it open. I became the revolutionary.
I am her son. I am the child scooped screaming off the floor of that violent act of 1965, cradled in her care and locked in the madness of a NO left unsaid. Unlived.
In 1979, I finally said it. And lived it. NO! NO MORE. I was inspired, beautifully, by my mom to say NO MORE.
I divorced myself from my father. He was drunk, near death, a low-bottom drunk, as the recovery movement might say, and I left him. Went to live with an aunt. Departed our house vowing never to return. NO was my parting. NO, I said, to watching him die. NO to trying to sustain myself in a home of violence and living death.
NO was my mantra out the literal door of the only home I had known. I am living proof we can UNLEARN HELPLESSNESS.
And this became my father’s doorway to a healing accountability. When I said NO, in my own revolution of SELF CARE, he hit bottom, finally, and he bounced. Bounced off a low bottom and recovered. And, yes, he was at Death’s door when he did.
Somebody had to say it. NO became my family’s revolution. NO stopped enabling my father to die and, instead, enabled my father to choose a beautiful life of sobriety for decades to come. It changed the world. NO was a YES to fully living. That singular NO has brought me here, as I am today.
And there is far broader evidence of its power. A resolute NO to religious oppression and imperial sanctimony founded these United States. It’s the enduring affirmation of our liberty. A gust of breath blowing open the gates to freedom.
Such a seemingly impolite little word, this NO. Fear will nearly cause you to deem it incompatible with love. And yet, NO. The word NO and authentic love dig one another. They’re made for each other.
So, perhaps in the end, this is a wedding toast. Cheers to NO. A toast to the perfect union of healthy, liberating love and that simple word that holds it true.
If you are living in domestic violence, get SAFELY away. Do it now.
And no matter the oppression of your heart, your place, your times, answer it. Help yourself to the benevolent wind of your own breath.