We have a word in Greece, the word Όχι which stands for No.
And on this day, 78 years ago, it was this word that stood as the country’s response to demands from the Axis Powers for complete surrender. What followed, one could claim, placed Greece on the right side of history. Albeit at a great cost, which is felt even to this day.
The word NO is one of the most significant in the human language as it lays the foundations that make human civilization possible.
It is the word that has the greatest impact when spoken; as much as when spoken to.
Who has not uttered or heard this word and not felt that time itself stood still; or as if for a moment felt order emerged out of chaos, or vice versa?
Children, get their first taste of sovereignty as individuals when they learn to say NO.
Turns out, this maiden declaration of independence stirs a cosmos within. It drafts the first set of boundaries in thought, feeling and relationships that help the child develop ideas both of individuality and community. Like vagitus - the newborn’s cry, the word NO is a person’s fist cry for freedom. The reign of humanity is founded on that cry.
In scientific thought, the validity of a hypothesis is how willing and able one is to say NO to its corresponding null hypothesis – the chance that one’s conclusions are merely coincidental – whilst prepared to accept factual evidence against it. Likewise, ‘thinking’ by definition takes more than the possession of a healthy brain. It always takes an argument or a thesis, but as importantly it needs a counter-argument, an antithesis. The one without the other can never bear the fruit of the mother of all questions – the Why. The one without the other leaves one exposed to the countless affirmative and often mindless modes of modern life.
When you resist humiliation, NO means dignity.
When you resist wastefulness, NO means economy.
When you resist unfairness, NO means justice.
When you resist irresponsibility, NO means integrity.
When you resist subjugation, NO means freedom.
When the above conscious NO’s are absent we become heteronomous, ordained by meaning and conventions we didn’t agree to. Rules and their exceptions, personal and national boundaries, the right to disagreement and difference, are only but some of the elementary attributes that define self-sovereignty. A conscious NO creates those necessary dialectical synapses that galvanize the present and fortify the future.
When we lose our ability to say NO, we become uninvolved in the dialectic redefinition of values that give meaning to the struggle between right and wrong, truth and lies, justice and injustice, even life and death.
We are born in interesting times, where conflicting one-sided worldviews abide in all directions. To make sense and stir a course through these times, it seems to me, we are bestowed with the inescapable fate to reevaluate recognized old virtues.
Saying NO is one of them. Let us learn to rise up to it.
* Addendum following the attacks at Pittsburgh Synagogue:
Witnessing the loud silence at the atrium of St Thomas University during last week’s anti-racism protest, my mind couldn’t resist the echoes of young voices reciting national anthems around a fire at camp Herzl. The trip organized by the UST international office had successfully managed to make one big family out of 40 people from 15 different countries, in less than 24 hours.
During the only night of the trip, when we run out of the songs we could sing together, one of us suggested we go around the fire singing national anthems or traditional songs from our native cultures. The mix of emotions in people’s faces and voices while bringing something so unique to the fire was captivating. The mix between fear of public performance and reluctance to appear too patriotic, with a sense of personal responsibility to represent one’s culture and take part in the symphony, is something that will stay with me forever.
You might ask, what does the word NO and a silent student body in protest against racism have anything to do with an impromptu brotherhood of young people celebrating diversity at a random Jewish camp? Well, how many times must difference be discriminated, intolerance be tolerated, warnings of catastrophe go unheeded, before the value of saying NO be appreciated?
Like one camper, who learned to play the guitar at Herzl Camp many years ago, used to say: “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.”