The secret art of saying No

August 04, 2022 09:58
Photo: Reuters

Life throws at you many opportunities. Opportunities to climb, to earn, to gain and learn. Opportunities to further one’s fledgling career, to preserve a crumbling legacy, or, indeed, to find what it truly means to be oneself through the process of seeking. Seek, and you shall find.

We are induced into a culture of productivity – indeed, one centered around hyper-productivity, performative and flamboyant to its core. This fetishisation of productivity is reified through procedures and mechanisms that reward those who “work more”, those who “go the extra mile”, or, indeed, those who are “additionally productive”. In so doing, we are rendered mere cogs in well-greased machines, lining the pockets of those who steer the machines behind the scenes.

We lose ourselves in the process. The “I” is replaced with “Done by”. The “Why” is substituted for with “How much?”. Quantification, qualification, caveats and constraints. One way or another, we emerge from the process exhausted, denatured, and estranged. Exhausted for we find no fundamental meaning or rationalization to our plight. Denatured, for we forget what makes us truly human – the human connections that allow us to resonate with others, to hear their words and feelings through the lenses of the Real. Estranged from our families, loved ones, and friends, as we are stuck saying, “Ah, sorry, can’t do this week, can we do the next?”

It’s tiring. The emotional drain is palpable and real. The physical toll may not be visible, yet deeply deeply visceral. The Chinese have a term for it, ‘involution’ – whilst friends in the West would term this ‘burnout’ sowed by elaborate exertion. One way or another, this modern cult – that measures our worth in accordance with how much we churn out; how much we do – is innately pervasive. It seeps into each and every corner of our life, whether it be at our workplace, in the family, or at home.

At our workplace, we police our behaviours to give off the impression that we are willing and ready to embrace more – more opportunities, more work, more pay, more people, more time spent labouring to no end. In the family, we judge and appraise others on the basis of how much they are willing to take on – a mindset that, when coupled with the misogyny that underpins conservative cultures, often shifts most of the emotional labour and burdens for domestic household work onto women. And finally, at ‘home’, we feel guilty for having me-time, for having time that is reserved exclusively supposedly for ourselves – only now to have such sanctity overridden by the need to get the job done.

It ain’t healthy. We need to put ourselves first. We need to prioritise. We need to learn to say No. Yet where do we start? All of this is easier said than done – self-help books sell well not because they work, but because everyone, upon reading them, pats themselves on their backs for having ostensibly stumbled upon a cure for their malaise. Hint: it doesn’t work that way.

I think we should start by being humble. Admit and accept impediments. Life is intrinsically limited, and in seeking to do everything, we would eventually culminate at a state of doing nothing OR being nothing – the former, for we have exhausted all of our fumes and energy; the latter, for we have become mere shells of our former selves through our ceaseless and mindless torment.

It’s high time that we said No to an image of the perfect self. It’s high time that we learnt to give up and reject others, not because we are selfish, but because – as Christina Perri once sang ruefully – we’re only Human.

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Assistant Professor, HKU