For Catholics, today is the Solemnity of the Nativity of Mary — Mary’s birthday. I like Mary for many reasons, some maybe too personal to share. (Don’t worry, this won’t be too pious.)
But what I told my kids today is that what made Mary the first saint is saying yes. As told in the Gospel of Luke, God sent an angel to tell Mary what was going to happen, and Mary did not say “Holy Shit!” or “Dear God no!” Effectively, she said yes.
There is a knotty theological question about whether she could have said no–did she really have a choice? But in practical terms, where you and I live, of course she could have said no, whether she had a choice or not. When the alarm clock rings too early I always say “Nooooo!” whether I get up or not. Sad to say, I meet a lot of the events of my day with a “Oh God No!” even if I go ahead and do them.
But I love the idea of saying yes.
Last week at the fair I got a brat with sauerkraut. It was nighttime, and the kids working the fair were getting punchy. “Want to do a sauerkraut juice shot with me and my friend?” the brat girl asked me. “Um, why not?” I replied–good enough for yes–and we toasted 3 little plastic cups of cloudy brine and gulped them down before I rejoined my family.
This summer I was out walking around our neighborhood with a sore foot in a light rain, when suddenly a person in a drag show (male? female?) reached a hand out to me from a stage door of the bar we were passing and said, “Want to take a spin?” I am fat, 40, and frumpy, with a purse that looks like a diaper bag. I was thinking, “oh dear me, no,” but I said yes and danced to “Groove is in the Heart” –luckily in front of blinding stage lights — and took a bow at the end before dashing back out into the rain to laugh the rest of the way home.
When I remember to say yes, I often think Stephen Colbert, yet another of my-kind-of Catholics, and his commencement address of 2006 at Knox College. So to celebrate Mary’s birthday, I watched it with my kids. I hope they learned a little something about saying yes.
Key text as follows:
You seem nice enough, so I’ll try to give you some advice. First of all, when you go to apply for your first job, don’t wear these robes. Medieval garb does not instill confidence in future employers—unless you’re applying to be a scrivener. And if someone does offer you a job, say yes. You can always quit later. Then at least you’ll be one of the unemployed as opposed to one of the never-employed. Nothing looks worse on a resume than nothing.
So, say “yes.” In fact, say “yes” as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the “-and.” And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.
Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.
Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”