Creon: My dear, I woke up one morning and found myself King of Thebes. God knows, there were other things I loved in life more than power.
Antigone: Then you should have said no.
Creon: Yes, I could have done that. Only, I felt that it would have been cowardly. I should have been like a workman who turns down a job that has to be done. So I said yes.
–From Antigone by Jean Anouilh, translated by Lewis Galantiere
If you’ve never read or watched Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, I recommend it.
The above passage is between Antigone and her uncle Creon– and in this moment, they’re both tragic heroes. Antigone took a stand and refused to be part of a system that was unjust and immoral. Creon saw the same system and took charge in an effort to salvage it, because nobody else would try. In this moment they argue, furious and fiercely at odds, but neither of them are entirely wrong.
Choose your battles
There are some responsibilities we can’t shirk. Some deadlines that absolutely, positively cannot be fudged. And yes, there is a lot of honor in being reliable and faithful and strong.
But there are also times when what’s expected of us is beyond our capabilities. We can certainly try– and we might even succeed– but at the cost of physical and mental health, of family and relationships, and of the moments that we cherish. Often these things are asked of us by people who don’t fully understand our situation, or it’s meant with an unspoken ‘if you get around to it’. But they can be an endless source of stress and anxiety for someone who’s never been taught to say no.
The first step is learning to discern between what absolutely, positively, irrefutably cannot be ignored– and, in contrast, what tasks and responsibilities you can afford to push to the wayside. Because I can promise you, as overwhelming as they seem, they aren’t all do-or-die.
There’s no shame in refusing
Not being able to get through something doesn’t make you stupid, or lazy, or cowardly, or weak– but often we can feel like failures if we refuse a task that’s offered to us.
I know women especially fall victim to this a lot: we feel like we must be rising stars on our chosen career path, we must be perfect wives and perfect mothers, we must keep our homes clean enough to double as the set for a sitcom and decorated with an interior designer’s flair, we must have exciting and vibrant social lives– and we must, of course, do all of that while working out regularly, dressing fashionably, and having perfect hair and makeup no matter what the occasion. And that’s just talking from my experience as a woman– it’s no picnic to be a guy, either!
With all of this weighing on our shoulders, it can be incredibly difficult to refuse anyone anything. But it can also be incredibly liberating– and empowering– to take a step back and reclaim a part of our lives for just ourselves. To do the thing you want to do because you want to do it, and not because somebody else expects it of you. And sometimes, it can be necessary for your mental health.