Some years ago, I made a decision that I would say yes to anything that wouldn’t hurt me or anyone else. If someone asked me, “Do you want to watch crickets mating?” I would nod yes. “Want to come with me while I buy brown shoe polish?” Of course. “Interested in watching a plumber repair a toilet?” Mais oui. I am absolutely sure that if you just say yes, your life becomes much more interesting, and so do your travels.
I wasn’t always a yes-woman. When I was living in Switzerland some decades ago, a friend invited me to a bingo game in the countryside. I scrunched up my face and said no. At the time, I was a binary babe. If an invitation interested me, I said yes. If it seemed boring or a waste of time, I said no. A few months later, my bingo buddy asked me again, and after my grousing and demurring, she somehow extracted a yes. A day later, surrounded by farmers, a few shepherds, and a cheesemaker or two, I won the top prize: a squawking chicken. That led to an adventure on a Swiss farm, where the dinner was my bingo chicken and the farmers became friends. If I had said no, I would have missed out on all of it.
Over time, I gradually realized that saying no closed the door to life experiences, and saying yes opened it. I recall a particular event when I shifted from nay-saying to yea-saying on the spot. I was living in Los Angeles and went to a Mexican festival where a bearded man with twinkly eyes was selling his colorful piñatas in the shape of cars, planes, and Marilyn Monroe. He saw me ogling Marilyn and asked if I would like to commission a piñata for someone. I instinctually shook my head no, but he persisted. “Maybe a piñata of your mother?” It was such a crazy idea that it jolted me out of my knee-jerk no. I ordered a piñata of my mother jogging. The four-foot-high papier-maché jogging mama in shorts and a T-shirt shared a living room with my mother until her death. From then on, every time I was about to say no, I asked myself, “why not?” If there was no good answer, I replied in the affirmative.
“For a lot of people, they get comfortable, and when we’re comfortable we’re afraid of change.”
Recently (recently now means “pre-pandemic”) I was in a tailor shop in Puebla, Mexico. When Juan, the tailor, asked if we’d like to meet his friend who is a famous local wrestler, I paused. I hate any form of aggression. I refuse to watch films with violence (yes, I say no to them!). So why would I want to meet a wrestler? But after a moment, I assented — although I did it through gritted fangs.
What happened is that I entered the fascinating world of Lucha Libre — Mexican wrestling. My husband Paul and I were allowed to attend the training, which was a rare honor. We met and watched highly skilled athletes, not muscle-bound buffoons, who could leap through the air with the grace of dolphins. We learned that wrestling provides impecunious kids, male and female, with realizable dreams of breaking out of the cycle of poverty. The training is focused not only on technique and skill, but on teaching kids how to be polite, do well in school, and become responsible and accountable.
Why do people say no to new experiences? “For a lot of people, they get comfortable, and when we’re comfortable we’re afraid of change,” says Danny Wallace, a British filmmaker, writer, talk show host, and author of the book Yes Man, in which he describes being dumped by his girlfriend and subsequently withdrawing from life until a stranger on a bus advises him that things will pick up if he “says yes more.”
For many of us, the default is “no,” says Wallace. “Before we’ve even heard what the invitation is, we’ve already started to form an excuse in our heads. The smallest thing can seem the biggest deal. But little by little, you can get used to saying yes more, as one yes will usually lead to another, and that’s when the fun starts.”
I have to admit, sometimes getting to the fun starting can be a little nervous-making. A few years ago, I met a young man on the island of Koror (part of the Palau chain of islands in the western Pacific), who asked me if I’d like to swim with jellyfish. “It’s really safe,” he assured me. My eyes receded into my skull as I recalled being stung by a jellyfish in Miami. I couldn’t recall which was more horrible — the burning, the stinging, or the purple welt. “Well, sure,” I said.
A day later I was in a van with Paul, two gooey-eyed honeymooners, and a couple with their 12-year-old son. I figured that if they were en route to Jellyfish Lake and seemed nonchalant, I shouldn’t be concerned either.
But when we got to the lake, five of the seven passengers refused to go any farther. Can you guess which two didn’t chicken out? If you said me and Paul, you are correct.
My heart was pounding and my eyes were darting around, but I dove into that lake and snorkeled with a million jellyfish. The graceful, golden beauties were shaped like the horrible mushroom cloud that is released by an atomic explosion, but that is where the idea of danger ends. These jellyfish are remnants from the last Ice Age, and over the last 12,000 years they have evolved to lose their sting.
I gently moved the swarm of little pulsing creatures aside so that I could swim past them. Besides the flapping of my flippers, the lake was still. And the jellyfish were probably as curious about the harmless invaders as we were about the lovely locals. My heart and soul were full of wonder when we returned to the van. The others were nowhere to be seen, and I felt sorry for what they had missed.
“For me, it’s all about stories. Experiences lead to stories, and stories enrich your life.”
Another time, in New Zealand, I was asked if I wanted to “work a cow bone.” “I don’t eat beef,” I replied. “Well, you won’t be eating the bone. You’ll be carving it.” You can imagine how excited I wasn’t, but I nodded and extruded the word yes.
For the next six hours, under the watchful eyes of a master sculptor, I designed a pendant that would incorporate a stylized whale fused with the shape of the infinity sign. Then I carefully and slowly sawed and sanded the cow bone until it began to resemble my design. When it finally looked a bit like Moby Dick, the sculptor taught me how to insert a piece of mother of pearl for an eye.
That pendant has become my good luck charm, and I have never traveled without it. When I receive compliments about my ivory pendant, I proudly reply that it’s created from cow bone and I actually made it.
Danny Wallace warns that while positivity should not be blind and unlimited, “saying yes more often definitely is” recommended. “You will meet people you would never otherwise have met, [go to] places you would never otherwise have gone, do things you would never otherwise have done. For me, it’s all about stories. Experiences lead to stories, and stories enrich your life.”
Which type of person are you? Even if you are a hard-line “no” person, I hope after reading this you might make a leap of faith and say “yes” more often. And who knows? We may one day meet ringside at a wrestling match or in a cow bone carving class or even underwater with the golden jellyfish.
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist and speaker who has authored three books and given a TEDx talk on deep travel. Read more at GlobalAdventure.us.
This article is featured in the January/February 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: The author overcame her fear of the unknown by opening herself to new experiences wherever she could find them. Clockwise from top-left: Trying on traditional headgear in Vietnam; studying with a modern Viking shaman in Norway; meeting with the High Priests of the ancient Samaritans; attending a bullfight in Tizimin, Mexico; meeting the Cornuz — the star of a medieval festival celebrating the end of cuckoldry in Catalonia; visiting a mine in Slovakia, despite a broken wrist; posing with Drak, a Lucha Libre wrestler in Mexico. (Photos by Paul Ross)
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