I’ve talked a lot about saying no. Today I’m going to talk about something I said yes to. Something horribly hard.
Growing up, I was surrounded by family and friends. We often had people over for meals, or went to visit others. We always lived in a faith community – after a short period in a normal house on a normal street, my second home was a farm where drug addicts could come for rehabilitation, my next was a foster home for children, my next a missions community. Us kids were taught, by the example of our parents, that relationships with other people were the most important thing in life.
There was one person that I always hated to visit.
Aunty Jill was not a relative, she was my mother’s school friend. In those days we called all the adults Aunty and Uncle, regardless of whether they were related or not. There are some friends I still have now who have asked me could I please drop the honorific – it makes them feel old!
Jill is not one of those. She loved the title Aunty. She needed it.
Aunty Jill had a very hard upbringing. Her father was not around, and her mother was very ill for most of her childhood. Jill responded to this stress by becoming ill herself. I never remember her not being ill. Or needy. Or lonely.
When we would go to visit Jill would be lying in bed in her tiny unit. She would pull me close to her scratchy chin and ample bosom and hug me for what seemed like forever. She would ask me questions about how I was, and whether I was happy, and she would make sure I gave the correct answer. She would give gifts – not gifts that suited us as such, but gifts she wanted to give. And then she would make sure we were properly grateful, that we said thank you, that we gave her a kiss and another interminably long hug.
She would take on the discipline of us children, making sure we behaved properly. If you said something she didn’t agree with, she would try to make you back down and if you didn’t, she would say, “Fair enough.” A phrase I still rile at today.
But my mother was faithful in visiting her old friend, so we, as kids, were faithful too.
We moved away from Tasmania for a while, and with that, and the move back, and getting married and having children myself, I lost touch with Jill. I can’t say I minded. I didn’t even think about her.
Then one day, when I was taking my young son to the doctors, there was Jill in the waiting room. She was thrilled to see me. Thrilled to meet my kids. Gave us all long, scratchy hugs. Made sure that we would look her up – she had moved to a nursing home by this stage. Asked if I could help her with something.
I’m a sucker for being asked for help so I said yes and we reconnected.
Now I had to go and visit Jill myself, and she was thrilled that I did. Absolutely thrilled that I brought the kids with me. She would give us gifts again, hug us all again, manipulate us into staying longer than we ever planned to stay.
She would try to discipline my kids, to make them say what they didn’t want to say, and that would make me angry. I was super angry that she was doing to my kids what she had done to me as a kid. I was super angry that I had to go and visit and that she wouldn’t let me leave. I didn’t want to be called her adopted niece or have the kids called her adopted great-niece and great-nephew.
But I would still go and visit.
Why? Because I believe that all human beings are valuable – not just the ones that are easy to love. I believe that God calls us to look after those that are in nursing homes, in prisons, in hospitals. Visiting Jill was horribly hard, but it fit into my values, and I learned a lot from visiting her.
I learned about setting boundaries. I didn’t force my kids to come with me and I would reward them after the visit if they did come. I let them see how angry I was and let them make their own decisions about what behaviour was appropriate and I think that helped them make their own decisions in similar situations.
I learned (from my daughter) how to say “I’m not comfortable with doing that Jill” when she would ask me to come and help her adjust her catheter or some such thing. I learned to say and to help my children say what they really felt in answer to her questions, not the answer she wanted them to give.
I learned how to set a time limit for a visit, and how to leave when the time was up.
I learned how to decide how often to visit and stick to my decision no matter how much I was pressured to come more often.
I learned how to find out someone’s love language (Jill’s was gifts) and to speak it and to appreciate it being spoken even if it was not my own (mine is acts of service – a love language Jill simply couldn’t speak).
As my children grew up, they chose not to go and visit, and that was fine. And then, as they grew up a bit more, they chose to go and visit. And I was super proud of them for doing so.
Many self-help books and blogs encourage us to only do what we love. They would say that my visit to Jill was a waste of time and emotional energy. That I should have crossed her off my list of activities to do and should have found instead something that built me up, that encouraged me, that energised me. But as hard as my visits to Jill were, I was strengthened by the experience.
When we look for a way to simplify our lives, the agenda for what goes on our list of things to do (and what gets crossed off) needs to be a greater one than ‘do I enjoy this activity?’. Many things are worth doing, even when they are not enjoyable.
Instead of asking if something is enjoyable, I think we need to ask whether it sits in our values. Whether it is our responsibility. Jill was, partly, my responsibility. I needed to step up to the plate.
I don’t have a ministry to people in nursing homes. I am not one of those amazing angels of people that adopt the lost and lonely, the poorest in our community, and reach out to them. Meeting those people at Jill’s birthday parties over the years was one of the rewards of reaching out to Jill.
But Jill fell in my purview. She had very few friends, a very boring life, and she needed the connection to our family. I needed to put aside my selfishness for half an hour twice a year to reach out to her. Even though it was exhausting. And yes, I whinged about her a fair bit. Like I said, I’m no angel.
When looking at what to cut out of your life, what to say no to, you may have a situation like I had with Jill. Something that is not fun, not rewarding, and does not help you invest in your ultimate dream. Most of the time we say no to these things, but be careful that you are not missing the chance to sacrifice your life, to take up your cross, to build the kingdom of God.
Sometimes it is better to do the things we don’t love. Sometimes it’s right.
I am saying no to things this year in order to spend more time on my writing. This post is part of a series I am writing about what I have learned about saying no. I’d love to have you join me on this journey. If you want to make sure you never miss a post, you can sign up on WordPress and the post will be sent to your email address every week without fail.
I am also writing a cosy mystery and it’s coming to the pointy end now. If you would like to hear more about the writing process, and see the cover reveal, drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll add you to my newsletter list. The newsletters are chatty, with a writing-focus, and only come out monthly so they won’t clog your in-box.
You’ll notice some special art in this series. If you want to see more of it you can find the artist on instagram @deteor42