Human beings are not infinitely extensible.
We cannot keep on taking on more, saying yes to more, stretching our efforts into the late hours, getting up early, piling it on, squeezing it in, pushing ourselves harder and harder, without soon hitting limits.
First, perhaps, we reach the outer limits of what our relationships can take. But we say to ourselves that it’s not too bad, that it’s just the way life is, and we push on.
Later we encounter the limits that our bodies and minds can take, and we return home first ragged and exhausted, then increasingly unwell. We’re adaptable though. It doesn’t take us long to get used to be stretched as thin as we can go. And before long we carry with us lasting damage from the stress hormones coursing through our bodies.
And even though this kind of yes-to-everything is endemic in our culture and in many organisations, it’s largely there because we have not yet learned how powerful ‘no’ can be.
‘No’ is a boundary-making move. It’s a declaration that separates this-from-that. It’s through ‘no’ that we distinguish the important from the unimportant, what matters from what does not, and what we care about from what’s trivial.
We can learn much about this from living systems. In cells, for example, it’s the boundary-making properties of the membrane, that which distinguishes inner from outer, that makes the self-producing and life-generating processes of the cell possible.
A cell without a cell wall is just a splurge of protoplasm and organelles.
And just as there is no outside without inside, there is no proper, genuine, sincere ‘yes’ upon which we can act without the necessary, powerful boundary-making of ‘no’.