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  • Writer's pictureRobin Koerner

The Power of Refusal (and a Heuristic for Life)

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

“It’s a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.”

- Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham

This quotation nicely captures the importance of a skill – or, perhaps, more accurately, a power - that is, in my opinion, not cultivated or promoted nearly as much as it should be if our goal is to live happy and good lives.

That incredible power is “refusal”. It is both a moral power and a practical one.

Although the word “best” in the quote is most naturally interpreted as referring to the quality of things and experiences, the quotation contains an important truth in whatever way the word “best” is interpreted.

At certain critical moments in life, refusal is the only means by which we can fully be ourselves and give ourselves the best shot at being who we really want to be in the long-run.

Refusal – the ability to say “no” to something or to walk away from it even at short-term cost – is sometimes the only way to stop ourselves from stepping onto (or continuing down) a slippery slope of moral compromise toward dishonesty, lack of integrity and/or complicity. It is hard because it invariably comes with high cost and high uncertainty.

Refusal is demanded whenever one is on a trajectory (in one’s work, relationship, or any aspect of life) that is about to carry you with someone else or many others toward a compromise of integrity or happiness. If you’re at that point, then you’ve almost certainly set up your circumstances with the expectation of continuing along that trajectory and, as a result, you will be quite unprepared for whatever comes after the refusal: that is why refusal is so hard even when it is necessary.

For example, if you left a job because you had a moral qualm about the practices of the organization or some of the people who work for it, you might have no idea how you’re going to replace your lost income (an experience I’ve had); operate without the emotional or practical support you’re used to; or move forward in life without the opportunities it offers.

Admittedly, when applied to the moral realm, the Maugham quote is perhaps somewhat banal. After all, at the moment one refuses to make a compromising choice, one gets the best of it - without any uncertainty. In other words, when it comes to personal integrity, refusing to accept anything but the best always (not just often) ensures that you do in fact get the best.

In relation to one’s happiness (rather than one’s morality, not that they are unrelated), however, the point of Maugham’s quotation is something we should surely be teaching our children as a “core operating principle”.

It seems obvious that if you want anything in life, you must at the very least refuse to do anything that will take you away from it.

Yet it seems to me that people all the time settle for (i.e. choose), rather than refuse, “opportunities” that they know in their gut/soul/heart will move them further from their highest expression of themselves or desires.

That “choice to settle” is precisely why, to quote another great writer, Henry David Thoreau,

the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Henry David Theoreau

They (that “mass of men”) lead lives of quiet desperation precisely because they accept – or settle for – something that comes their way (usually a job or a relationship) merely because it offers something that makes life easier in the short-term. They do that even while knowing that, by so doing, they are reducing the chance that they will ever have what they really care about. How so? Because, by accepting the job or relationship that doesn’t move one toward the job or relationship one would much rather have, one ensures that one will not have enough time, energy, or opportunity to move in the direction of the more exciting vision one had for one’s life.

Many people whose work makes them “quietly desperate” are failing to refuse the compromise of self that occurs when they spend most of their waking hours on something that holds no higher meaning for them; similarly, many people whose intimate relationship makes them “quietly desperate” are failing to refuse the compromise of self that occurs when they live with, suffer from, and therefore endorse behaviors that they would never otherwise accept.

It’s scary to quit a job without knowing what you’ll replace it with, or to quit a relationship knowing that you’ll suffer grief and loss. But long-term happiness depends on the courage to do those things; it depends, in other words, on refusing to take the easy option (morally, emotionally or practically).

I have another quote in my commonplace book, which generalizes this deep truth.

It’s one of the most powerful in its 240-or-so pages because it quite literally provides the answer to every dilemma a human being can ever face.

Are you ready for it?

Caroline Myss
“If I had guts, what would I do? And that’s your answer"

- Caroline Myss

Why does refusal, in particular, take guts?

Refusal is a simultaneously positive and negative act.

It is to actively (positively) say “no” (negative) to a thing. It therefore combines assertion and strength (positive) with the acceptance of risk and non-compliance (negative). It is often an act of faith (positive) in the face of the immediate loss (negative) that means getting off a path of little resistance and on to one of trepidation and the unknown.

A Political Post-Script

By way of prologue to this post, I was pondering the recent impeachment proceedings against former President Trump are under way.

Some (mostly) Republican politicians who supported, or rather made excuses for, Trump’s words and deeds over the last four or so years are now taking a stand against his alleged involvement (via incitement) in the criminal events that were recently witnessed in Washington, D.C..

I’m glad these people are acting on their consciences now, drawing their own moral lines, and holding fast to their limits, but I find the whole thing rather sad.

Everyone (regardless of their politics) has been able to watch Trump’s modus operandi since he took office. Everyone has been able to see his relationship with people and facts. No one who’s been paying as much attention as all our Representatives have had to pay over these last four years can therefore be surprised by anything Trump did or said in the last days of his presidency. (That seems to me to be true regardless of the truth of the events in our nation’s capitol on 6 Jan. 2021, which I have not studied closely.)

However, those politicians from Trump’s political tribe who are now voting to impeach could have refused to accept Trump’s modus months or even years ago. Call me old-fashioned but I believe that part of the job of a politician is to provide moral leadership according to his or her conscience and so, for a politician, refusal to accept must mean speaking out honestly.

If enough of those previously Trump-excusing, now Trump-opposing Republican politicians had called out Trump’s poor behavior earlier, not only would they not have been complicit in bringing us to the current state of affairs by supporting the tribe and tribalism that enabled Trump, but also they might have prevented recent events.

Rosa Parks - a famous refuser

Refusal is that powerful, especially in politics. Rosa Parks is one of America’s most famous witnesses to that fact - but thousands of others throughout history have made similarly huge impacts by refusal.

Here’s an analogy that demonstrates the need for, and power of, refusal.

When alcoholics get drunk, many become abusive and beat their partners. In so doing, they are behaving reliably and predictably: it’s what abusive alcoholics do.

All the while they are alcoholics who’ve not taken responsibility for their problem, they can’t help themselves. To use the correct neurological term, they have “limited executive function” (higher-level cognitive skills that control and coordinate one’s other cognitive abilities and behaviors).

While the alcoholic abuser is completely responsible for his acts against his partner, he is not typically choosing to commit those acts while he is doing so. His partner, however, who stays around while knowing what her partner will do to her is making a choice. There may be good reasons for that choice (or more accurately, factors that make choosing differently extremely hard), but it is nevertheless, technically, still a choice.

A different choice would be to refuse to be complicit in the abuse by no longer making herself available to be abused and simultaneously protecting her alcoholic mate from the rightful consequences of his actions.

Those consequences should include at the very least the loss of the relationship, and preferably also prosecution for domestic violence.

The point is that while the alcoholic remains impaired and immoral, his abused partner is the only one who can end the abuse - and she can do it only by refusal.

To repeat, this is not to say that such a choice to leave an abuser (or exit from any immoral situation) is easy. There are often deep psychological and emotional reasons why the abused party stays and takes it. Often, it takes love for another - one’s child – to provide the strength to make that difficult choice of refusing to accept the status quo any longer.

In that moment of refusal, it is apparent – not least to the one who leaves – that, difficult as the choice was to make, it was nevertheless a choice. Refusal is a positive, negative act.

The general point is that the refusal of others to accept bad behavior is the one thing that can stop abuse – or at least their abuse - by someone who can’t seem to help himself. That holds true however difficult the refusal is to follow through, and whatever finally provides the strength to do it.

Considering that alcoholism involves mental and moral impairment, destruction of the executive function, and the abuse of others, I hope its relevance by analogy to recent political events is obvious.

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