Saying No

People talk a big game about about how they want their life to be more “balanced.” They wish they had more time. They always feel tired, stressed, or overwhelmed. They don’t sleep enough. Finances are tight. They don’t see friends as much as they’d like, etc… Actually, I feel like this an awful lot of the time, and I’m starting to realize that it often comes down to one thing:

    I have limited time, money, and energy, but I act like I don’t.

I pretend I have unlimited time when I stay up late instead of going to sleep. I act like I have money to burn when I go out for dinner with perfectly good food in the fridge. I imagine that I am a machine and not a human being when I schedule friends, work, errands, and out-of-town trips back to back for two weeks solid.

I originally drafted a very long post that dug into each of those three resources – time, money, and energy. I discussed how to quantify them and leverage excess amounts of one to make up for a deficiency of another. I had a long lecture with a bunch of math in which I concluded that you get about 40 hours of disposable time a week after doing the bare minimum of sleeping, eating, and working a full-time job, so you should use your time accordingly. But after writing lots of what amounted to pretty obvious “life-hacking” tips, I realized that it’s pretty much all about saying “no.”

Some of us, some of the time, are good at saying “no” to spending money when we can’t afford it. That is basic financial responsibility, and it’s generally understood that you shouldn’t be allowed to be an adult until you possess it. What very few of us are good at is saying “no” to spending time and energy when we can’t afford it. Unfortunately, almost every adult I know – including myself sometimes – is not only pretty awful at this, but doesn’t even consider it an important skill.

Imagine a friend invites you along on a weekend trip to New York. You are short on money lately, and Manhattan is an expensive place to visit. It’s hard, but you have to say no. You say “I wish I could, but I just can’t afford it.” Your friend does not argue that you technically could make it happen – by borrowing the money, skipping paying your bills this month, or acquiring some credit card debt. That would be extremely stupid and not worth it, and both you and your friend know it.

Now imagine the same situation with one difference: you have money to spare, but you have been very worn out lately and not getting much sleep. Do you tell your friend “I’m sorry, I’m just not up to it. I don’t have the time or the energy?” Even if we do, I think most of the time our friend attempts to convince us (and does not have a hard time doing so) that we could totally make it work. We agree to the weekend trip and – without really thinking about it or meaning to – decide that we will just do all the sleeping, resting, housework, shopping, errands, seeing friends, and everything else we would have done and need to do that weekend “some other time.” We don’t figure out where that time is going to magically come from. And we don’t consider that we will be even more worn out after a couple nights in the big city and not up to hitting the ground running on Monday to make up for lost time.

We make ruinous, bankrupting decisions with our time and energy while carefully stewarding our money. We even save up money for unforeseen needs, but have you ever “saved up” time or energy? I usually spend mine as soon as I get it – and then spend some more that I don’t have. We are so careful with money, which can buy goods and services, but utterly frivolous with the resources we need to function as decent, effective, creative, and loving human beings. Being short on money may impact my credit rating, but being short on energy impacts my marriage and being short on time impacts my friendships. I can love my daughter and be an encouraging co-worker with $0 in the bank, but when I am sleep deprived and burnt out I can’t do either of those things no matter how much cash I have on hand.

If God wanted us to have more hours in a day or require less sleep, he would have built humans or the world differently. He didn’t. We need to learn to say “no” wisely and without guilt. Only when we do so are we able to say “yes” to the things that matter most.


Instead of posting articles on facebook, I should stick to writing my blog.

I have a bad habit of overstating my case sometimes. So does the writer of this article, which I should not have posted on facebook without a bit more qualification.

I certainly don’t agree with the article on every point, but I do think it pokes a stick at some very important questions, particularly for urban families who have the financial and/or social resources to choose where their children will go to school.

Like any parent, I want what is best for my kids. As a Christian, however, I think it’s tremendously important to question what that means. “What is best” for my daughter is that she learns to love the Lord and love her neighbour as herself. She could go to the best school in the world (of whatever type that may be) and never learn this. She could receive no formal education whatsoever and still in the end have received what is best. So I first want to posit that whether or not you send your kid to private school or public school is not necessarily a question of whether you are giving them what is best or not. That said, education matters. You probably cannot overstate how much it matters.

I want what is best for my kids – and so does every other parent. But while I can choose where to send Jubilee to school, many of my neighbours cannot. Their children will go to the public school around the corner whether they like it or not, because they cannot afford another option. Thus, my choice of where to send Jubilee to school is not just an individual choice about what is best for my daughter. It impacts my neighbours. If she goes to the public school down the street, her presence and our family’s boots-on-the-ground investment in the school will have beneficial effects on our neighbour’s children. If we send Jubilee to private school, we remove that benefit.

Sending your kid to public school is clearly not the only way to love your neighbour. In fact, if you are spending your time and energy loving your neighbours in other ways, then you probably ought not to make the enormous commitment of sending your child to an underperforming public school with the intent of being engaged in its programs and environment for the betterment of the community. If, however, you have the resources and the calling to make that commitment, then I think it is well worth considering.

I think it is worth considering even more so if you have a lot of families from your church with similarly aged children who could all send their children to the local public school together, be invested in it together, and support each other in the difficulties of doing so.

I think that the article’s ideas have some merits, and I think that public schools could be helped and even transformed if significant amounts of socially and financially wealthy families committed to their well-being with their time, money, energy, and even their children. My secret pipe dream in life is to do this in West Philly along with other families from City Church.

My fear is that the liberal Pharisees will beat us to it. That the church might fail to show sacrificial love in such a radical way. I think that it can be done, and I think that it does not involve sacrificing our children on the altar of a progressive agenda, but rather teaching them how to love God and their neighbour in the best way possible: by example.

Keeping Score

My friend Nick told me this story of the time he was hospitalized with a bad infection. It was 3am and as his body struggled to fend off impending septicemia, he was in the throes of night sweats and feverish dreams. His nurse came into the room and, seeing that he had soaked his pillow with sweat, replaced his pillow case with a clean one. In his semi-delirious state, this simple action prompted my friend to exclaim: “You’re an angel!”

There are a lot of different ways to keep score as a nurse. A lot of people go by how many lives they’ve saved. In fact, when I was a nursing student in clinicals my mom used to ask me if I had “saved any lives that day.” (Answer: “No. They’ll die of something else later. But I definitely prolonged some.”) Nick, on the other hand, always asks if anyone told me I’m an angel.

I keep score this way. So far, my score is 3.5.

It’s actually a pretty difficult metric. “You’re an angel” is not the most common expression of appreciation. And even if I allow myself the conceit that at least a few of my patients think it, it probably takes a special person to actually say it out loud. Fortunately, most of my patients are on drugs so they are all pretty special a lot of the time.

And that is why nursing is so great. You do these very, very simple things for people and it means the world to them because they are in such a vulnerable place. The very simple things that have gotten me my 3.5 points are:

-Giving my patient a cup of ginger ale with ice.
-Washing my patient’s feet. (When he thanked me, I said “I follow a guy who is big on foot washing.”)
-Praying with my patient when she was anxious.
-Helping my patient get into bed without hurting her incision. (Actually she said “You’re soooooooo niiiiiiice.” so I’m taking it as just half a point. This is also a good example of the drugs talking.)

It strikes me that it’s the easiest things that have this kind of impact on people. You don’t have to catch an impending heart attack or stop your patient’s carotid artery from rupturing with your bare hands (I wouldn’t advise doing that, anyway). Just get them something to drink. Make them feel a little more human. Be a comforting presence. Help them with a task they can’t do on their own.

We started having some electrical problems at the place we just bought. Most of the house lost power, and the circuit breaker board was slowly but surely becoming non-functional. I had no idea what was wrong, how bad it would be when we figured it out, or how much it would cost us. It dogged me like a suspicious lump that was steadily getting bigger and the doctors hadn’t figured out yet.

When the electrician came by this morning, he did some tests, adjusted some wiring, fixed the problem, and let us know that while some more work needed to be done eventually, our house was not going to blow up, burn down, or blackout in the near future.

My sense of relief was palpable. I told him “you just made me feel physically better.” Which maybe sounded really weird, but that’s how I felt, and I wasn’t even on narcotics. Here I was, Nurse Ferris, in a vulnerable place with a problem I didn’t understand, and in doing his job right, this electrician did a very simple thing that gave me great relief.

So it made me realize that I’m not in such a privileged position as I thought I was in nursing. There are a lot of ways to be vulnerable, and a lot of simple gestures that have tremendous significance when done in the right place, in the right way, at the right time. I don’t know how electricians keep score, but the one I saw today definitely gets a point from me.

we are here to be Ourselves

There’s an exercise I created for my senior thesis in nursing school. I put up a picture of a hospital patient in an intensive care unit. Clustered around the bed are the legions of medical equipment and devices used to sustain life at its most fragile moments: ventilator, cardiac monitor, IV pump, oxygen, defibrillator. A nurse is hanging an IV medication – stethoscope around her neck and a plethora of medical supplies in her many pocketed scrubs.
“What is the most important tool in this picture?” I ask. The audience’s answers vary, but eventually someone gets the one I’m shooting for, which is “the nurse.”

My mother has a little trouble with the fact that I get into cage-matches every once in a while. I’ve been training in Muay Thai for a couple years now and last night I wrote her a long email after a tough sparring session trying to capture why I love it so much. What it comes down to is this: You bring nothing into the cage but yourself – what you have made yourself capable of, what you can force your body do, the depths of fatigue, pain, and fear that your mind and your spirit have the power to overcome. The other man in the cage is not your opponent. He is your teacher and he is testing you to see, quite literally, what you are made of.

Ten months ago I became a father. It’s a wonderful adventure and it also brings up a mess of previously unknown anxieties and responsibilities. Am I making healthy choices for my daughter? Am I raising her right? Am I providing enough for my family – now and for the future? How do I balance time with her against other responsibilities? Am I pulling my weight alongside my wife in terms of child care.
At the end of the day, however, I know that none of these questions are Jubilee’s questions. My daughter wants just one thing from me. She wants me to be her Daddy; one simple thing that I will spend the rest of my life being and becoming. The world is full of fully grown adults who still mourn their fathers’ relational absence, regardless of what their father may have achieved or done for them. But a father who loves and thoughtfully cares for his children can and will be forgiven many failings and shortcomings.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. I’m still trying to figure that out, and much of it seems to be discovering all the things that I have backwards. I wasted a lot of time thinking that God wanted me to become someone else before I found out that he wants me to become myself. And lately I’m learning that even this is only part of it. We are indeed meant to become ourselves, but it is not for ourselves. We are here to be ourselves for our neighbours and for our maker.

Not to do, to act, or even to dream, but to be.