Embrace Your “Yes”

Last year, Julia Abu found herself on a remarkable adventure – all because she said “yes” when so many of us would have said, “no, that’s crazy!” 

Julia is a senior citizen living in Cape Town, South Africa. Two years ago, she found herself calling into a radio program discussing then-President Jacob Zuma’s taste in extravagant cars. 

“I was incensed,” Albu told the BBC. “I phoned to say I was going to be 80, and my car, Tracy, was a 20-year-old Toyota and she ran beautifully. We could happily drive to London together, so why Zuma needed all these new cars was beyond me.” 

What started as a joke, turned into Julia pledging on the air to drive to Buckingham Palace to have tea with the Queen. Her whimsical pledge struck a chord with other listeners; within six months Tracy (the car) was covered in the stickers of her sponsors, and Julia was ready to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. 

Now, take a moment to imagine yourself in Julia’s place. You’re an 80-year-old woman who has lived her whole life in one place, just a few miles from the bottom-most tip of Africa. In a moment that was something between genius and madness, you made a promise to the world to drive your 20-year-old car over 8,000 miles – basically the equivalent of driving from Los Angeles to New York three times – through unknown and potentially dangerous lands, so that you can have “tea with the Queen.” 

For most of us, this is the point where our rational minds would start coming up with a catalog of reasons why this is a terrible idea, why we should stay home where things are safe and comfortable. We’re too old. It’s too scary. The car will break down. And on and on. Julia, no doubt, had many of those same thoughts and fears. But for her, the call to adventure was stronger. She later shared, “I thought, ‘My goodness, there really isn’t much of life left.’ I feel like I’m 36 from the shoulders up and 146 from the shoulders down, and I wanted the younger me to win for once.” 

Julia’s trip proved to be as vibrant as the continent she set out to traverse. When she arrived in Johannesburg, an escort of Harley Davidsons paraded her through the city. In Botswana, an elephant nearly ran her off the road, and her car struggled to manage the gaping potholes. By night, she slept in a tent by the side of the road. During the day, she experienced the natural majesty of attractions like Lake Malawi or Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, read books with Zambian schoolgirls, talked endlessly with village elders, and met countless truck drivers who shared their food with her. 

At border checkpoints, those same truck drivers recognized Tracy and ushered her to the front of the line. When the guards asked Julie where she was going, she replied, “to have tea with the Queen!” Unable to mask their astonishment, the guards ushered her though. 

Over the weeks, Julia’s travel diary filled with names, numbers and business cards of the people she met along the way. When she made it to Cairo, she loaded Tracy into a shipping container to cross the Mediterranean by ferry, while she flew back to South Africa to recuperate. The ladies were reunited in Greece, and continued their travels through Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, and Holland, before arriving in London. 

“Oh, I was dying to have tea with the Queen – particularly after telling the world and his wife that I was going to,” Albu told the BBC. “But it was the week of Royal Ascot, and apparently she was otherwise engaged. The English are a strange breed. I’m not sure they appreciated quite how long my journey to Buckingham Palace was.” 

However, that was not the end of her journey. Julia left London, crossed the Channel again, drove down to Italy where she sailed to Tunisia and began her return drive to Cape Town. 

“Well, why not? What do you want me to do, sit on this sofa and wait to die?” she laughed. 

While unique, Julia’s cross-continental adventure is an example of the remarkable opportunities we discover when we say “yes” to life instead of “no.” Being an aging retiree, who had recently lost her husband, certainly made it easier for Julia to say “yes” to this wild idea of driving across Africa to have tea with the Queen. However, why should we wait until we have “nothing to lose” to be courageous with our lives? 

So many of us have goals and dreams for our lives that we put off. It may be the prioritization of our commitments, such as our careers or caring for our families, that keeps us on a particular track in life. Alternatively, perhaps we worry about what people will think of us, or how we will survive and have enough money to pay for necessities like food and shelter. Maybe we feel like it’s not the right time, or we aren’t prepared enough to make the change. Regardless of the reason, it’s common for many of us to put what feels like practical considerations above what we genuinely want deep down inside. 

Regardless of the excuse, learning to say “yes” to life, more than “no” is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. Life is short and the possibilities too transformative to allow us to remain bound by “no.” Instead, we get a chance to be authentic to who we are deep down inside, and to prioritize ourselves. 

In the context of child psychology, Dr. Dan Siegel describes the actions of Yes and No as two separate brains jockeying for position. On the whole, the “No-Brain” is one that is constantly reacting to the problems around it. This brain state is one of tightness, constriction, anger, fear, sadness and the temptation to shut down or run away when things get tough. Neurologically, MRI scans have revealed that stress hormones are released when we hear or view negative words like “No.” These words put our bodies in a fight-flight-freeze response and reduce the speed at which the brain functions. 

Conversely, the “Yes-Brain” is a receptive state of mind. When we are in this state, we are more open to opportunities, we are curious, and also more connected to the events and people around us. MRI scans indicate when hearing or reading the word “yes” and other positive words, the mind is calm, functions faster and is more balanced. In a phrase, it’s ready to receive. 

That day when Julia called into the radio station, she likely came up with 100 reasons why driving from Capetown to London was a bad idea. Indeed, her children attempted to talk her out of it. However, Julia’s “yes-brain” dominated and she didn’t allow herself to fall into the “no-brain” trap. As a result, she experienced a grand adventure some of us only dream about, and met countless people on the way that enriched her experience beyond her wildest dreams. 

The question is, how do the rest of us cultivate a “Yes-brain” when we feel like we might have more to lose than a widowed, 80-year-old, retiree? 

  • Be clear what you want. Most of us “think” we know what we want, but those wants could be the desires of others, either the people around us or society at large – becoming clear about what you want, as your authentic self is the first step to recognizing the opportunities surrounding you to help you achieve your deepest desires. 
  • Curb the self-talk. We are all guilty of knowing what we want, but then talking ourselves out of it. No matter if the reason is a sense of obligation, fear of the unknown, concern for what others will think, or other creative excuses, this self-talk keeps us stuck in the same old neuropathways. To attain what we want, we get a chance to exercise more positive neural pathways and strengthen them, just like any other muscle. 
  • Transform excuses into reasons why. Rather than reminding yourself of all the reasons why you can’t have what you want, reframe those negative thoughts into the reason why (and how) your desires are attainable. This exercise forces your mind to shift from a no-based, reactive state, to a yes-based, responsive state. 
  • Increase the positivity of your thoughts. Similar to the idea that ingesting caffeine requires you to drink more water to attain your daily-recommended amount of hydration, negative thoughts require counterbalancing to reduce their harmful effects. To cultivate positive neural pathways, research indicates each negative thought needs to be offset by a range of three to five (or more) positive thoughts. These thoughts can be realistic or absurd; it doesn’t matter. It’s all the same to the brain. All that matters is that they are positive thoughts. Actively combating the negative with the positive strengthens these more beneficial brain connections and increases the chances that they (and not the negative ones) will be the first line of awareness the next time a conflict of wants is presented. 

This week, take the time to evaluate things in your life that you want. Ask yourself, if these are your desires, or those of the people, or community, around you. If they are genuinely yours, what reasons do you use to keep yourself from having them? Then, consider one action you can take this week to counteract the stagnation you feel, and put yourself one step closer to having what your heart desires. 

PS – For those of you who noticed that, although Julia traveled the whole distance to London, she didn’t actually attain her goal of having tea with the Queen, do not fret. I’ll be covering that aspect of this story in the next Ponderable. 

“I imagine that yes is the only living thing.” – Edward Estlin “E. E.” Cummings, American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright (1894 – 1962). 

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