I was honored to receive a nomination to give a speech at TEDx this coming year. Made it to the very brink of the committee’s rigorous approval, but didn’t quite pass muster. But I’ll share the synopsis of that speech here, for I believe it’s an “idea worth spreading.” And NO hard feelings, TEDx. I’m a huge fan and advocate of TED worldwide.
A Speech In Waiting
At the University of Pennsylvania in 1967, some researchers did something many deem unethical. I am definitely one of them. Yet the results offer a revelation about how we see the world. Those results extol the revolution inherent in a single, powerful word more people must learn to say.Such a miniscule word that takes a fraction of a breath.You see, those researchers took to shocking dogs. Yoking dogs together and delivering electric shocks. Terrible thing to do. And the research concluded that a dog who believes he can’t avoid the shock—can’t do anything to govern or escape it—will begin to show signs of clinical depression, similar to humankind. The dog learns to feel helpless.
Learned helplessness is a scourge to the heart and mind. It lashes us to withering despair. And it is perhaps no more evidenced in human cultures than in domestic abuse. Intimate partner violence.
The feeling that we can’t rise up and stop what afflicts us, wounds us, entraps us—this feeling causes us not to use, and live, that simple word. I am here to invoke that word. To celebrate it as a tonic. An antidote to the sickness of learned helplessness. We’re called not merely to say it. We are called, at many times in human endeavors, to live it out loud.
The word, that simple gusting of our breath, is NO!
Look at it. One syllable. Hardly that. Yet it lies too little used. Demeaned as impolite. Indicted as a threat to our relationships, when, in fact, it is often the only word that can heal a relationship and the people in it of dysfunction. Alas, though, NO stays in the pockets of our minds. Lies fallow and molding within us, yearning to get out to run. But we don’t dare, when daring is called for. Instead, we hold NO captive.
And, thus, we remain captives.
Martin Luther King Junior said NO. He lived it. He lived out a NO to oppression and a NO to violence and changed the world.
Nelson Mandela lived his own NO to South African Apartheid. He dared his way through a crunching captivity, yet liberated—was liberated—by the resolute living of NO.
Mother Teresa saw poverty and indignity so searing, she inspired a global brand of compassion by the NO she lived. She not only said NO. She commanded the beautiful intolerance that is NO’S bedfellow. She lived intolerant of people living and dying with indignity.
NO, lived with daring compassion, is a beautiful INTOLERANCE. Perhaps the only great intolerance known to humankind.
No mere word. It is a narrative with a period at the end. It is a revolution.
And, yet, there it lies, unspoken. So powerful. Yet unlived. Gathering the dust of badly broken living rooms around the world.
In 1965, a woman tried to wake her husband off the sofa of their modest house in Arden, North Carolina. He was drunk. It took hardly a second for him to spring from his intoxicant sleep and pin her to the floor. He beat her unmercifully. Beat her until blood flew about the room and into the face of their three year old son, who cried the wordless cry a child will cry for help. Such a cry is often a child’s most articulate NO! So often unheeded.
This stalwart, wounded mother answered. She lifted the husband off herself, crawled to the child, scooped him and ran to a bedroom. Nurtured and calmed him, wiped her blood from his face. She restored calm to his pulse and her own and gave the illusion of order.
And, she stayed.
For the next decade and a half, she stayed with a man who was episodically violent. A man whose alcoholism only worsened.
But she stayed. Learned helplessness tragically afflicted a strong, bright, regal woman.
Fearing what others might say, and for a slew of other destructive reasons, she refused to say, and mean, NO. Locked in what looked like a spiral she couldn’t control, she wouldn’t live up to the NO what was whispering to her. She felt helpless. Anxious. Depressed. She was, at times, an emotionally dead woman, living in a threat of mortal death too much of the time.
She needed to say NO! NO was her calling. NO was her beautiful intolerance that would have cut a doorway out to freedom. It was her revolution, in waiting.
And I became the revolutionary.
I am her son. I am the child scooped screaming off the floor of that violent act of 1965, cradled in her care and locked in the madness of a NO left unsaid. Unlived.
In 1979, I finally said it. And lived it. NO! NO MORE.
I divorced myself from my father. He was drunk, near death, a low-bottom drunk, as the recovery movement might say, and I left him. Went to live with an aunt. Departed our house vowing never to return. NO was my parting. NO to watching him die. NO to trying to sustain myself in a home of violence and living death. NO was my mantra out the door. I am living proof we can UNLEARN HELPLESSNESS.
And this became my father’s healing accountability. When I said NO, in my own revolution of SELF CARE, finally, he bounced. Bounced off that low bottom so near death and recovered.
Somebody had to say it. NO became my family’s revolution. NO stopped enabling my father to die and, instead, enabled my father to choose a beautiful life of sobriety for decades to come. It changed the world. NO was a YES to fully living. That singular NO has brought me here, as I am today.
And there is far broader evidence of its power. Why, a resolute NO to religious oppression founded these United States. It was an affirmation of liberty. A gust of breath blowing open the gates to freedom. I know the feeling well. We all do.
Such a seemingly impolite little word, this NO. Why, fear will nearly cause you to deem it incompatible with love. And yet, NO. NO and authentic love, they dig one another. The perfect chaperones.
An old Greek proverb goes like this: Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit it.
A compassionate NO to oppressions—yes, even those you have secreted into this very room—is the seed of such trees.
And in their shade, it beautifully dawns upon us we are not so helpless after all.
Cheers to NO. Your very own. If you are living in domestic violence, get SAFELY away. Do it now. And no matter the oppression of your heart, or your calling, answer it with that most benevolent wind of your own breath.