The Origin of No
When I was about 17 years old, I found myself sitting in my high school guidance office discussing potential colleges with the guidance counselor. She scoffed at my ideas. She said that I would be lucky if any college would take me, and that I should rid myself of any hopes of attending a prestigious school. She also said that she didn’t see me graduating from any college. She cited the fact that I was expelled from my last high school, and that despite my increasingly good grades that I was a street kid, and should limit myself to street kid dreams. I was not sure what street kid dreams were, but they did not sound appealing.
The truth is that she was not completely wrong. I was expelled from my first high school. I had not always made good choices in the past. I did hang around with a group of kids that were a little rough around the edges and made some bad choices, but I had made some good choices too. I had a job I worked nearly every day. I was captain of the debate team. I taught philosophy to high school students. I distanced myself from my peer group once members of this group began to get arrested. I went to the gym consistently, had good friends and good relationships with family. I was also applying to schools that would allow me to develop my talents, and give back to the world. That was my goal then, and it is my goal now. The meeting with the guidance counselor was short, but the no echoed in my bones.
Dealing with No
In the time between applying to colleges and receiving responses, I had a lot of time to think about this No. I spoke with people I respected. They told me their personal stories of success or failure in college, and those of their friends or acquaintances. I spoke to my older brother, David, who urged me to find a school with structure and study tools after taking the time to tell me about all of the challenges he faced coming from our educational background. I took these conversations to heart and some advice from my Uncle Jerry (A Vietnam Veteran), and decided on military college: a place I was told would give me all of the structure and tools necessary to get an excellent college education and a meaningful career path.
I don’t know if military college taught you structure or study tools as much as it filled your day with responsibilities, and put you in challenging situations where you would have to develop structure and study tools to survive. By working my tail off and choosing good mentors, I did more than survive though. I thrived.
I did so well that one of my favorite mentors, Colonel Infortuna, suggested that I enrich my learning by taking classes at Harvard for the summer. Colonel Infortuna was a true renaissance man. He spoke five languages, was a Comparative Literature Professor, was formerly a policeman, and a professional football player for the New York Giants, and for some reason he liked me. My military college advisor told me I could not take this risk. “What if you fail?” He warned me, raising his voice while his face reddened with anger.
When I returned to Colonel Infortuna with this information, he said, “So what! Everybody fails. It’s trying that most people are afraid of. So, are you afraid to try?” Who knows where it came from? Maybe it came from all the times my business teacher asked me to sit up, and speak louder so he could hear me. Maybe it came from the respect I gained from my commanding officer when I earned my rank as new cadet under great duress (in a way I have sworn to keep secret). Perhaps it came from my night tactical officer, Colonel Lee, who would rub the top of my head before bedtime and tell me that I could stop studying for the day because he was already sure that I would be somebody. Wherever it came from, it was there shining and bright like the light on top of a Christmas tree, “No, I said.” Colonel Infortuna gave me a knowing smile, and patted me on the back, “Of course you’re not. You are going to make it.”
Life After No
Unfortunately, Colonel Infortuna is no longer with us, so I cannot tell him that I have exceeded all of my goals, and have now achieved enough to share the clubhouse with him as a doctor and an owner of my own office. I think of him often, and hope he is proud.
I still remember the look on his face and his wife’s face, when he sent me off to Oxford the following summer with far too many books to carry anywhere. He was proud. Proud that I refused to accept no, and instead chose to live my life. Proud that his mentorship was so valued. Perhaps even prouder that as cancer continued to claim use of his organs, he was still powerful in the ways that counted. He was able to pass on courage, passion, vitality, and of course love.
Countless times in my life I have been faced with no’s, and like you I have been afraid. When I am afraid, I think about Colonel Infortuna and all the other mentors, family, and friends that I have had who have sacrificed so much for me to have a good life, and despite my own fears I continue to pursue my goals.
Self-Compassion and No
The most important part of self-compassion is the wish for your own well-being. You cannot let others be in charge of your happiness because they cannot know exactly what you need to be well, and they certainly cannot do the work. Often in life when we are afraid, we allow other people to say no to our greatest hopes and dreams. In some way, this feels safe. We do not have to act, and we are not responsible for the decision not to act, but this is really an illusion. No one can tell you not to pursue your dreams. None of them have a crystal ball. They do not actually know how things will turn out. My life is a perfect example of this.
Nothing in this world is worth sacrificing your well being for. Accepting no with respect to your dreams is the same as deciding to not be happy and full of well-being. If you are truly dedicated to self-compassion, you will notice your fear with a kind, keen, and objective eye. You will make space for the fear. You will wish yourself freedom from the suffering that comes with fear, and you will wish yourself self-acceptance and ease. Then, you will choose an action, no matter how small, that will begin your journey to your goals. With this one small action, you will communicate to yourself all at once that you are capable and worthy of a happy and meaningful life.
May you be kind to yourself. May you give yourself permission to follow your dreams. May you grieve the no’s that you receive in the world, and bring kindness to your experience. May you find mentors and other alliances that will reinforce your dreams. May you have your own Colonel Infortuna (even if he is just a voice inside you) that pats you on the back, and tells you that you are going to make it. He’s right, you know. You are going to make it.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 49. In the Books.