Wit’s End: How Sting Taught Me to Say “No Thanks” in 2021

“In 2021, I’ve seen enough. Thanks, but no thanks.”

Singer Sting

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The phrase “thanks, but no thanks” means “An expression of gratitude for the offer of something that one does not want or is not interested in. Often used sarcastically or impolitely.”

The saying is notable for its almost-niceness, the pleasant, pseudo-friendly way in which it indicates rejection. Years ago, civility with an ironic lilt probably didn’t seem like much. But in today’s poo-flinging-monkey atmosphere, it sounds charmingly old-fashioned: the Bridgerton costume drama of brush-offs.

But let’s back up:

Long ago in 1987, the British pop star Sting released his second solo album, Nothing Like the Sun. At the time, I was 15 years old and living in a small town in New Mexico: a remote outpost reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine.

It is impossible to overstate this album’s effect on me, as I spent all my free time plugged into it in a sort of trance. Like a pearl forms itself around a bit of grit inside an oyster, I tried to build my whole identity around Nothing Like the Sun. While listening to it on my Sony Walkman, I pored over the lyrics like a Kabbalist studying ancient scripture.

The album’s most thought-provoking song was called “Englishman in New York.” I didn’t know this at the time, but it was inspired by the British writer and actor Quentin Crisp. Born in 1908, Crisp became a gay icon with the 1968 publication of his memoir The Naked Civil Servant and moved to New York City at age 72. He said so many funny things, someone compiled them in a book.

Almost every line was countercultural, hilarious, and true. Sample Crisp quote: “The key is never, never work. Nothing is more aging than work. It’s not only the strain of getting up in the morning for work, but it’s the resentment that settles on your face.”

Sting admired Crisp, and “Englishman in New York” is told from the point of view of a refined person in an uncivilized land. At age 15, I believed these lyrics applied to me. When the song’s narrator called himself a “legal alien,” it expressed how I felt in my hometown.

Helpfully, the song gave tips on how to live as a misfit. Like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, it dispensed sage advice such as: “It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile.”

I took no offense at the term “man.” I was interested in the substance, which seemed to apply to me as much as anyone. The attitude the song prescribed was old-school British self-restraint, and because I had no better ideas for getting through life, I was willing to give it a try.

The song’s most important line, however, was not about restraint at all. Sting repeated this line eleven times, singing it over and over until the words faded out and the song ended: “Be yourself no matter what they say.”

Eleven times multiplied by hundreds of repeats of the song, these words were drummed into my consciousness at a formative age. What did they mean?

No matter how polite and civilized you were, it seemed, you were still likely to get poo flung at you. Oh well. “Be yourself no matter what they say.”

Is it still possible to be yourself in 2021?  Maybe. But it requires an “Englishman in New York” mindset. Everywhere you look, there are enemies to avoid and suffering-ignorance-and-smiling to be done.

That’s why, this year, I’ve adopted “Thanks, but no thanks” as my motto. It has a certain jauntiness, even a hint of humor. Yet in its pleasant way, it is just as emphatic as “Hell, no.”

Recent movies and TV, social media, popular books, celebrity award shows, professional sports — much of this now falls in the “thanks, but no thanks” bucket. I could go on for a while, but I’ll stop there.

No one told me rejecting things would feel oddly liberating. It’s like that classic comic exchange:

“See you later!”

“Not if I see you first!”

In 2021, I’ve seen enough. Thanks, but no thanks.

Featured image: D-VISIONS / Shutterstock.com

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