‘Popularity’ by Paul Scott

Published June 9, 2011 by Gail Norris in Articles, Parish Magazine

Many years ago I knew a young man who seemed unable to say “No”.

This meant that he was unable to keep appointments as, if he was asked to do something for his father or a friend, he would do to to the detriment of anyone he was due to meet. Apart from this, he was (or could be when he wished) charming, considerate and fun to be with.

We all have to make choices, but why, I wondered, did he invariably choose a recent request rather than apologising and saying that he was seeing someone in half an hour or so?  When I had known him for a while, I realised he was unable to say “No.” I remember that on one occasion, his father asked him to help with some fencing and, instead of arriving at our meeting place at eight o’clock, he turned up at nine. It hadn’t occurred to him to phone to say he’d be late. I soon realised that the only way forward was to arrange to meet at one of the many coffee shops that were proliferating at the time. If I took something to read, I could order a coffee and wait somewhere warm.

We all want to be liked and to have the approval of our friends, family and acquaintances. As a result, we think that if we refuse to fall in with their wishes, they won’t like us, but nothing is further from the truth. No-one wants always to be agreed with and if we don’t sometimes refuse a course of action, we will be in danger of losing the friends we let down.

Before we moved to Swanmore, I attended a Counselling Course at Surrey University. One evening, Lorna, our tutor, told us that she often came across people who were unable to say, “No”. The previous week she had been at a meeting where a nun had told her that she always felt responsible for clearing up, even when she was the main speaker. Lorna then set us an exercise. We sat in a circle and, in turn, we each asked the person next to us to do something. The respondent had to answer “No”, without giving any reason or excuse. We all found the exercise difficult because our inclination is to be helpful. What surprised us, though, was the fact that we also found it difficult to have our requests refused.

One of the students said, “But you wouldn’t refuse some of these requests, would you?” and it was pointed out that it might be necessary if we already had an appointment.

This may sound selfish and is contrary to what we are taught from infancy. I know it was impressed upon me that I should put others first and fall in with their wishes. I was never told to weigh up the needs of one person against another. However, I did understand that existing arrangements take priority over any subsequent requests, however appealing, unless I could legitimately ask to be released from the earlier appointment.

In the letter of James, who authorities think may have been Jesus’ brother, he says, “… do not swear, not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No” no …”