On not giving up

One way that getting older can help, it seems, is in enabling you to spot the patterns. One of my patterns is wanting to give up. But I noticed recently that this impulse or drive – it is always pretty strong – actually has a strong correlation to my commitment to whatever it is I’m doing. That sounds odd, but I guess it makes sense. The more I have given myself to something, wholeheartedly, putting all of my energies in, the more I can run into trouble when disappointments arise, when it feels like the goal will never be realised.

Nevertheless, spotting the patterns doesn’t necessarily solve anything, or make it easier. Often the impulse is just as intense when it comes around the next time, and because the feeling is familiar, that in itself can make me want to follow the message I think it is giving me. But last time I was aware of this happening, I did try to stop and think about what it is that has meant I have been able to get past the point of giving up in the past. Because while I’ve felt this with most of the things I’ve done, and I’ve gone through the motions of having the giving-up conversations, there are a fair few things that I haven’t in the end given up on. So I started to become curious about how that was the case. 

These are some things that I seem to have learned; or at least I think they’re the tips I need for myself. 

  1. Allow yourself to give up for the night, then see if you can do another day. This isn’t just because things look better in the morning, and it doesn’t mean that you see things wrongly at night. But the resolve or energy to keep going takes time to seep back in when it has all been exhausted. You can test it out: is it now trickling back, even a little?
  2. Let yourself feel the tiredness. This is probably something you’ve been fighting. But it is good to be able to give in to it, especially when you choose to do so, permitting yourself to let go. Sometimes, for me, this looks like sobbing it out until that day’s tasks, routines and plans fade into irrelevance. Sometimes I have to speak out the rage: the result of all the pent-up pressure, or disappointment. It’s messy, but for now, it’s necessary. Apparently it is Banksy who is quoted as saying: ‘if you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit’.
  3. Identify your ‘co-mates’ (Shakespeare’s word) or ‘comrades’. Wanting to give up can be tied into having taken on the burden of whatever it is you’re doing as if it is only your own. But often there are others who care about the same issues, or share the same beliefs; who do a similar job or have chosen a similar route. Whatever it is that is held in common with such people can make us ‘comrades’ (from the Spanish camarada, meaning ‘chamber mate’). It is good to be able to think of who these people are, even if they seem to be faring comparatively well at present. It is a reminder that the path you are on exists beyond your own experience of it, and will go on existing as a viable option.
  4. Recall your friends. You might need to reach out to people who you know will be on your side for no other reason than that they like you.
  5. Find someone who cares enough to listen. This doesn’t have to be someone to whom you are connected; the only thing that matters is that they can give you space to talk without the fear of repercussions. Admitting you want to give up can be the most painful step, and it can help to tell someone who isn’t themselves going to be affected.
  6. Remember what and why you’ve invested to get here. Granted, this may not be any help when you’re feeling the distress and could happily throw it all away. But it’s useful to remember that there was a beginning, and a good reason why you began. It is the counter argument to feeling you will never see the end.

Some caveats

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with leaving or stopping or walking away. But I’ve found that doing these things comes with a cost and you have to be ready for it. Most of the time when I am consumed with the thought of giving up, I don’t have it in me to make a clean break, or to take the necessary, sometimes complicated steps to make a change to another route. So I need to remind myself that there are ways to avoid the pain that, at other times, has come with the things that I have in fact given up on. 

Steadying thoughts

If I was prescribing some poets as companions to read at such a time, I might start with Robert Frost and his ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, and include at some point ‘The Arrow and the Song’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But, though I don’t claim to be an expert, the poet who probably knows this terrain the best is Wordsworth. He also takes his own explorations to a deeper place: demonstrating that the course we take through life is not only to be described in terms of the things we do, but that we experience the world and our journeys through it as spiritual beings. The spirit itself needs to be addressed, especially when it has found itself in trouble. For me, I found these lines light up recently when I came across them:

– So build we up the Being that we are;
Thus deeply drinking – in the soul of things,
We shall be wise perforce; and, while inspired
By choice, and conscious that the Will is free,
Shall move unswerving, even as if impelled
By strict necessity, along the path
Of order and of good.

(from The Excursion, Book 4, ‘Despondency Corrected’)

These lines are spoken by the Wanderer in Wordsworth’s long poem, and addressed to the character named ‘the Solitary’, during the course of a conversation in which the two discuss various questions. The Wanderer is a thoughtful man who has discovered what wisdom he has through observing and travelling, and allowing Nature and the experiences of those he encounters to be his teacher. The pronouncements he makes come from someone who has, in a sense, come a long way. In the lines that precede this bit of the poem, he has been suggesting ways in which we become conscious of something beyond us that is more lasting than the mortal beings by which we are surrounded: something with which we are however connected. 

There is a kind of morality or right doing in this idea of ‘the path / Of order and of good’, but it is the way in which we get to it that seems important. Knowing what to do and how to do it comes from this deeper absorption ‘in the soul of things’: from acknowledging the soul and its enduring reality. This, Wordsworth is saying, becomes for us a true source of strength: ‘So build we up the Being that we are’. Not by trying harder, but simply by witnessing, and keeping our eyes and hearts open.

One final thought

As in Wordsworth’s example of the Wanderer and the Solitary, we need others to help us not to give up. And I feel too that this past year of dealing with the pandemic has highlighted how we have a collective task to support one another with this. I hope we don’t lose sight of this in the weeks and months to come.

Image by Mariusz Matuszewski from Pixabay