I believe in just saying no.
For my sixth birthday, my granddaddy gave me a silver dollar. As big as my palm and strangely weighty, the coin bore the profile of a stern Eisenhower. At that time, 1975, a dollar was twenty times my weekly allowance and would buy me four Milky Way bars, six packs of bubble gum, or twenty Charms Pops. But this dollar was not for spending. It had risen above the pettiness of commerce. This was more like an artifact of history or a piece of public art. So despite my temptations, I said no to Mr. Feeney’s candy counter and saved the silver dollar, displaying it on my dresser along with other cherished objects.
This is my first memory of saying no to the razzle-dazzle, lose-ten-pounds-in-ten-days, buy-now-pay-later, you-deserve-a-break-today, just-do-it world we live in. It’s not just the media’s roar I’m referring to; it’s what my family, my friends, sometimes even my inner voice tells me—go ahead, take a break, splurge.
But I have skepticism about pleasure that guides me: I don’t believe we satiate our desire by feeding it any more than we do by depriving it. And sometimes deprivation leads to greater satisfaction than indulgence.
Take Thanksgiving. Eating triple portions of turkey and tubers doesn’t make me feel gloriously satisfied or thankful. Overcome by gravy, I feel gross. However, occasionally I fast and listen to my stomach’s knock, knock, knocking for two days. How chewy, how nutty is that simple cup of brown rice that breaks my fast.
Here are some ways my philosophy currently manifests itself: I say no to sugar before lunch, no to high heels, no to a cell phone, no to artificial sweetener, no to pierced ears, no to bottled water, no to carrying a balance on my credit card.
Sometimes saying no is easier than saying yes—I don’t have to say no to thong underwear; it says no to me.
It’s not that I’m particularly self-disciplined. The opposite is true. It’s because I’m too lazy to rise for a six o’clock jog that I have to at least be able to say “No thanks, I’ll walk,” when offered a ride home. There are also things I don’t resist: books, two-hour phone calls, a six-minute dose of artificial sun to survive Juneau’s November.
But when I need it, my strength to say no is bolstered by knowing that every no is a yes to something else. Not owning a car for my first thirty-three years is the reason I have skied to work on the Iditarod trail and why I have walked to work under the pyrotechnics of the morning Northern Lights. And the money I didn’t spend on a car allowed me to travel to India, where I rode trains, oxcarts, auto-rickshaws, camels, and even a festooned elephant.
I’m no puritan or prude, martyr or miser. But in a world of such bounty, such opportunity, such Krispy Kremes, choices have to be made. I believe that saying no to some of life’s shimmering pleasures buys me a moment of peace and a small sovereign patch where I can pause and ask what it is my heart truly desires. No is not deprivation, it’s deliberation. No is not loss, it’s freedom.
And my silver dollar? My older brother James stole it to buy Tootsie Rolls and little plastic army men. He believes in saying yes.