By Scott Roeben
I have a problem with hearing the word "no." It's a simple word, like lots of other two-letter words, such as "Ao" (a tribe in India), "nu" (thirteenth letter of the Greek alphabet), "xu" (the monetary unit of Vietnam) or "oy" (what you're seconds away from saying if I keep this up).
But "no" is different somehow.
My problem with the word "no" is that it's almost always my first response. Whenever I am faced with choices about new places or experiences, my first answer is an uncompromising, resounding "no." Why is that? I can't imagine I'm alone in this regard.
There are lots of reasons we are reluctant to say "yes" to things. Ultimately, life is at fault. "Yes" has a lot of risk attached to it, after all.
King George said "yes" to more taxes. "What wilt they do, dress up as Native Americans and throw tea into the harbor, verily?"
Custer said "yes." "Wulp, sure. Ya'll can bet me and my men can whup any twenty tribes of Native Americans."
Native Americans said "yes," too. "Reservations? Yes. We want table near window if possible."
The habit of saying "no" is not an admirable quality, I admit it. It has lots of drawbacks. You never see a Playboy Playmate who describes her ideal man as "A guy who won't go hiking, who doesn't particularly care for fine restaurants...and who would never dream of swimming nude after sunset, mainly because of that scene in Jaws."
Yet saying "no" and hearing "no" are two entirely different things. Much like scaffolding and wind sprints. Different, that is.
There is something about being told "no" that just doesn't sit right with us humans. It is what helps to distinguish us from animals. That, and the fact that most animals don't spent weeks at a time complaining about the humidity.
Some of our greatest achievements have been the result of people being told that something couldn't be done.
"No, Leif, you will never make it. Serpents will devour you."
"No, Christóbal, you will never make it. The Earth is flat."
"No, Mrs. Fields, you can't make a simple cookie that someone will pay approximately $12 for."
Throughout history, people have taken being told "no" as a personal challenge. Our heroes, explorers, inventors, scientists and leaders have consistently overcome naysayers ("sayers of no") to prevail and make strides in every aspect of human endeavor. With steely determination, which is the best kind, except that it rusts if you leave it exposed to the elements, men and women have spit in the face of the skeptics.
There was Charles Lindbergh. "No, Charles, you cannot touch down at Le Bourget airport on May 21st, 1927 after being the first to fly solo across the Atlantic. You also cannot have crypto-fascist leanings, whatever those might be."
There was Lizzie Borden. "No, Lizzie, you cannot possibly be acquitted." (She was.)
There was Buddha. "No, Enlightened One, you cannot sit like that for very long without severe cramping."
There was Cain. "No Cain, you can't slay anyone. Because if you did, the murder rate would be a whopping twenty-five percent."
There were Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. "No, you fellas won't last more than a day or two against Santa Anna. But try, will you, boys? 'Cause if Texas should fall under Mexican rule, they are sure to make a mockery of the institution of slavery by insisting that we free ours." (And you thought they were fighting for honor.)
There was Lady Godiva. "No, me lady, your real name cannot be Godgifu-- which some will Latinize as Godiva--and you cannot be married to a man named Leofric. You also cannot ride nude through Coventry. Unless you really want to, in which case, no one is stopping you, believe me."
There was Thomas Edison. "No, Thomas, you cannot invent wax paper, the dictation machine or a method of making synthetic rubber from goldenrod plants."
There was Samuel F. B. Morse. "No, Sam, you cannot be a seminal influence in American art. And stop that tapping as well." (He was. He didn't.)
There was Hiawatha. "No, Hiawatha, you cannot unite the Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca, Mohawk and Oneida tribes. Nor can you bend over too far in that outfit without embarrassing yourself considerably."
There was Leonardo da Vinci. "No, Leon, you cannot design the life preserver or the differential transmission." (You guessed it. Oh, and he also chiseled naked guys.)
What do all of these renowned figures have in common? They neither said "no," nor did they seem to hear it. We might learn something from that.
Right, and I might become a seminal influence in American art.
© Scott Roeben, 2000. All rights reserved.