It was very appealing to be invited to the White House to speak at the National Book Festival attended by 85,000 people and attract at the same time new readers. There would be the pleasure of sharing her work with others and the opportunity to talk about how to start an outreach programme and sell and sign some books.
This was all really good for Sharon Olds, the poet. But she had conflicting views about this invitation. She really wanted to take the chance as a guest to speak about why we should have not invaded Iraq.
However, there was a problem. She couldn’t face the idea of breaking bread with Laura Bush, a woman who, for her, represented the administration that had unleashed the Iraq war and which permitted the flying of people to other countries where they would be tortured.
You don’t need to agree with her, but that was what she thought when she received the letter. That’s what she believed about the war in Iraq.
I guess she thought about it for a day or two and finally decided to write a letter refusing to attend the event. This is how she ended her letter to Laura Bush: ‘I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it.’
There is nothing more visceral than your values: nothing that tells you more about who you are and who you want to be with. Nothing that can make a clearer statement about who you are for and who you want to break bread with.
Before you reject an opportunity to partner with a business, say no to an invitation to an event, or stop working with a client, a good question to ask is ‘What is it that I can’t stomach here?’ This gut feeling is the key to what you stand for.
Saying no has no value if you don’t know why.