The Bigger Yes

Last week, I saw Liz Gilbert and Rob Bell speak together about fear, creativity, permission, enchantment, purpose. They talked for 6 hours and I have a dozen pages of notes, but the thing I keep coming back to is this:

Liz talked about how, in her 20’s, she was struggling to find time to write between her jobs, social life, relationships, etc. she was complaining about this (again) to a mentor of hers who was a bit older and an established, successful writer.

The woman asked Liz to break down her days and how she was spending her time.

Liz started naming the things she was doing. She saw some areas that were obviously optional (maybe the New Yorker subscription and the time spent reading it each week wasn’t *totally* necessary). And then she got to her family events, time spent creating connections and fostering friendships, places she was asked to be to support this or that thing.

Liz said, “Yeah, I’m probably going to have to start saying no to things I don’t want to do, huh?”

Her mentor responded, “Oh. Liz, darling. It’s so much worse than that. You’re going to have to say no to things you really want to do.”

I can’t stop thinking about this.

I had a huge turning point in my struggle to get sober when I read this Stephen Covey quote. I knew there was a burning “yes” in me, even though I couldn't yet name it. And I knew it wasn’t going to come if I kept on drinking, even if nothing horrible happened again. Even if I somehow kept on drinking “safely” for the rest of my life—meaning I didn’t get another DUI, I kept myself in check, I didn’t outwardly wreck relationships, I didn’t actively destroy anything—I would still be saying no to a bigger yes. It was an innate knowing, this idea that I was saying no to something bigger by choosing to drink and spend my time that way, and it grew as time went on. It was the less urgent but more convincing argument to me.

The urgent thing was my life was actually falling apart in real, tangible and dangerous ways. But the more convincing thing was my heart’s withering cry: a knowing that it would be far more painful to live but not wake up.

Today there are so many things I want to say yes to. Particularly now that I’m not trapped under a hangover or obsessing about drinking or not drinking, time has freed up and expanded. And I, like the rest of us, have real things we have to do just to maintain the baseline: go to work, pay my bills, take care of my kid, sleep. Which leaves a certain sliver of time for the things I actually want to do.

So for me, the choices are different today than they were a couple years ago, in that they’re less born out of “The Bunker” as Rob Bell puts it (the place we get in when we’re in survival mode, which can be addiction, illness, financial hardship, anything), and made more from a place of expansion. But my task is to remember the importance of choosing. The importance of consciously saying “no” to X because I am saying “yes” to Y is still as urgent as it ever was.

For example, I chose to sit down and write this morning instead of run important errands, even though those to-dos were really scratching at my brain. I often choose to pull together something quick and boring for my daughter's dinner, even though it would be more healthy—and even though I deeply want her to have the same experience of homemade food I had as a kid—because I choose to go to a recovery meeting from 4-5pm instead. I choose to allow myself to forget birthdays and showers and anniversaries and other important events because I only have so much space in my brain and schedule. I hope that ideally, my friends and family see I love and support them in other ways, but sometimes they may not. Etc. Ad infinitum. These are the things we choose.

Some of these decisions are easy, but some are much more difficult and tricky. Some choices involve disappointing and confusing people we really care about. Sometimes my daughter doesn’t understand why I won’t go to bed with her because I want to finish an essay and that tradeoff is a real, actual loss for both of us. Sometimes I make a different choice. It’s imperfect, always. Balance is a complete myth. The key, I think, is to know that we are choosing.

Santa Monica, 2016.

Santa Monica, 2016.