Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Power of No

We hate the word no. No is negative. No represents denial and prohibition. In a world of instant gratification, the word no is taboo.

Unfortunately, no is underrated. Self denial is the foundation of civilization. Thinkers from Plato to Hobbes to Freud have embraced this idea, and recognized the importance of impulse control in the formation of society. Community and camaraderie depend on our ability to say no to selfishness.

The power of no is also a critical part of personal development. Self mastery is a prerequisite to human greatness. Rav Solovietchik explains that in Judaism, the heroic is not found in mere victory. A true hero must also be capable of self-defeat. The Mishnah explains: “Who is powerful? The one who controls his urges.” With discipline comes power. A mighty warrior may win battle after battle, only to be addicted to victory. Genuine heroes are masters of their own victories, people who can sacrifice the very object of their ambitions.

Heroic discipline is becoming a lost art. Michael Medved, the film critic, tells of a visit to a TV show taping that he made several years ago. He had brought along his 6 year old daughter Sarah, and upon arriving, the show’s producer offered Sarah a candy bar. Before accepting, Sarah brought the candy bar to her father to check if it was kosher. There was no kosher sign on the candy bar, so Sarah reluctantly returned it to the producer. The producer was shocked by the little girl’s refusal. She berated Medved for denying his daughter a little enjoyment, and declared that Medved’s insistence on kashrut would emotionally cripple his daughter when she got older. This producer, an influential pop culture personality, simply could not understand the idea of self discipline; to her, any form of self denial is unhealthy.

Pop culture celebrates self indulgence, and self discipline is seen as repressive and depressing. That’s why we no longer have role models; character doesn’t matter anymore. Contemporary heroes possess fame and fortune but little else. Michael Jackson and Monica Lewinsky are contemporary icons, while the army private in Iraq is a forgotten misfit.

It’s time to reclaim the power of no. As selfishness has become more respectable, family and community have suffered. Marriage and family are based on discipline, character and self sacrifice. In a me-culture, leasing a BMW is a higher budgetary priority than a third child; self indulgence is more important than an established spouse. Community depends on generosity, a value that is incomprehensible to the selfish. Why give away anything you might enjoy yourself?

True heroes don’t question generosity. They understand self defeat is sometimes the greatest victory, that giving is sometimes greater than taking. They understand there is more to life than candy bars and BMW’s.

They understand the power of no.

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