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


Winter in the Wilderness: Poems to Light the Way

It has been difficult recently to find our way through the days in this strange elongated time of not much happening or changing, even while the world keeps on spinning and making demands of us. I think that is what has brought the idea of the wilderness to mind. But of course 2020 is not the only time we have been there, and in putting this little collection of poems together I have been thinking about what I might myself have needed when I have got lost or stuck in other ways. I am hoping this is a collection I can return to in future, not because it enables me finally to make sense of everything, but because it might give me some thoughts I can work with when I’m not sure where to look next.

I am aware, too, that this month is the season of Advent. This is something I have never fully celebrated in the traditional way, though I often find myself at this time of year wanting to be able to dip into its attitude of waiting and hoping, or wondering and inwardly preparing. As a concept it can feel closer to where I am at than what we get at Christmas, which is the glorious fulfilment of a story that you either have to enter into as a complete vision of the world reborn, or somewhat ignore as a narrative that in its very completeness might feel like just too much to take in. A few of the poems below, then, do speak to the place that such a season can bring me to, although I have steered away from making this a collection about Advent and tried to widen it out further, beyond the themes of faith and belief. 

In the rest of this post I have made a start on thinking about each of the poems, but I will also be sharing some readings of them over the next twelve days, so do follow along with me either on Twitter (@sanityandgrace) or Facebook if you’d like to hear them read aloud. 

1) Among All Lovely Things My Love Had Been, William Wordsworth 

There is excitement to be had at this time of year, as we play the game of spotting the best Christmas lights that we can see as we travel around town at night. But I love how in this poem our attention is drawn to the more humble glow-worm, though Wordsworth’s joy in discovering it does not seem to be any less. The scene, too, is not picture-perfect; it is a stormy night that brings out the earth-bound creature, and yet the storm does not hold any real power to dampen spirits here. 

2) Let my first Knowing, Emily Dickinson

This feels like another love poem, though I am not certain what kind of being is being referred to as ‘thee’. I like the poem better for this openness.

3) Abide with me, Henry Francis Lyte

Henry Francis Lyte wrote both hymns and poems, and though for us these lines now come coupled with the tune by which we know it, the words do hold a particular resonance when taken more slowly or allowed to stand on the page. I like the combination in the five different verses of a deep sense of need, along with a confidence in the one who can meet that need. There is also proportion and an idea of scale: everyday realities are exchanged here for a larger reality in which the threat of darkness, temptation, ills and death can only by met by trusting in someone who is more constant and who survives beyond all of these things.

4) In Memoriam A. H. H., 67 – Alfred Tennyson

Though Tennyson is here addressing the friend he has lost, it is as if the poem finds a way for him to still feel connected in the present to one who in more than one sense now resides far away. What I find hopeful here is that Tennyson is able to experience at least for one night a settled peace, allowing him to sleep, and that this keeps him in time for once with the natural order of things, which in itself is a mercy: as the night precedes the dawn.

5) To my small Hearth, Emily Dickinson

Light here is in itself a kind of salvation, and it seems to arrive unbidden, bringing with it a change that could almost be permanent. 

6) The Old Woman, Joseph Campbell

This is a poem in which stillness has its value. Instead of winter being a time when things are simply dead, here it becomes instead a time to shine. What has been done in the past is sufficient, and there is now no need to “do” any more. 

7) Shadows, D.H. Lawrence

In this poem God is both known and unknown, and the way in which he is known and experienced is continually in flux. But unusually, here, God is in the shadow as opposed to the light: it is as if he participates in the same seasons of shadow that Lawrence goes through, and to which the earth itself is subject. While life itself moves through phases of pain and trouble, the shadowy element brings a kind of cushioning that is able to preserve body, soul and spirit until ‘new morning’ comes. 

8) In Memoriam A. H. H., 124 – Alfred Tennyson

These lines tell a story that can feel almost impossible to tell or to identify for oneself: of what it can feel like to come up against the threat of losing one’s faith, or whatever it is that gives a person that sense of the world holding together. But the lines also give ear to something that only poetry seems to have the right kind of space for. The voice of the heart speaks up, and for a time, within these little stanzas, what the heart says is enough.

9) The Birds begun at Four o’clock, Emily Dickinson

This is not strictly a winter poem, since dawn begins much later at this time of year, but I have included it nonetheless because of what it has to tell us about things of wonder and beauty going on without our awareness, even when many of us may still be ‘asleep’. It is a poem that carries a reminder that there are tremendous forces of life at play, even within the spaces that we physically occupy in the world, and that human life is not the sum total of all that there is. 

10) Light Shining Out of Darkness, William Cowper

These lines might risk feeling too easy, and it could be tempting to gloss over them. But I do, personally, want to retain the possibility that there might be a natural law or pattern at play that is higher than my own understanding can reach. ‘God is his own interpreter, / And he will make it plain.’ 

11) Winter Rain, Christina Rossetti 

I can often associate the rain with dreariness, especially when it is so frequently cold and dark at the same time. But there is none of that here, and as the lines of Rossetti’s poem run on, they compel me to feel that in fact, the more rain the better.

12) The Oxen, Thomas Hardy

This is a poem to come to when the old traditions feel worn out and spent. It revolves around an ‘if’, allowing that the hopeful bit may never be realised, and yet in that ‘if’ there is still always the chance that as the year rolls round again, old feelings might once more be revived. 

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay 

A Meditation on Simple Things

In the past few months things have been drastically stripped back. Where we have come to expect choice, variety and preference, these have been replaced all of a sudden by a narrowing of options: we must rely on what we can get. But in the process I’m sure it’s highlighted how complicated our lives had become, and the lengths to which we were prepared to go to satisfy what we had become accustomed to identifying as our desires or needs.

All this has made me want to connect to something tangible, the consistency of which has survived longer than the inventions of our own generation. I began to look out for those things which have brought humans pleasure, solace and sustenance over the centuries. For tangible things are still vitally important to the human schema. We are not just beings of spirit, but beings who need to be able to reach out and touch the world of which we are a part.

This is my own little list of ‘essentials’. 

I am not so interested in the breath as a placeholder for neutrality. But I do like how it provides a sign of the function of the whole. William Wordsworth writes of ‘the breath and harmony of music’: that which holds it together, and sustains each note and phrase. The breath is the architecture. It is the simplest, most constant and most flexible part of the composition. 

I imagine that bread looks and tastes different depending on where you live or where you come from. This has probably long been the case. But its meaning must be the same: it fills the hole that hunger has left, and it is good for sharing. The dough or the loaf must always be broken into pieces or portioned out so that there is enough for everyone. It is a wonderful gift, keeping us linked to the earth and to the grains which it nourishes into life.  

In Imtiaz Dharker’s poem ‘Blessing’, rain can only be imagined: ‘the small splash, echo / in a tin mug’. The noise is what is missing in the time of drought. The sound of rain must be one of its great pleasures. Sometimes pattering, sometimes drumming down onto the earth. Rain reminds us of all the happenings outside of our own control. It commands the space, before withdrawing again. And the best times, I think, are when we least expect it. 

In Emily Dickinson’s poem the everyday is no less remarkable for being everyday: ‘I have seen the Sun emerge / From His amazing House / And leave a Day at every Door …’ In Greek mythology, the sun god was represented as emerging with the dawn on a horse-drawn chariot to ride across the expanse of the sky. Without this image in mind, we may perhaps be less inclined to look to the body that is doing the bestowing for any sense of company or intention. But Dickinson helps us to feel this bestowing once again, as if on one occasion she was able to observe it all anew: with eyes that could be genuinely amazed.

Candles have become a luxury item now that we no longer need them to see in the dark. They captivate now with the scents and colours that have been added to the wax. But the image of a flame in the darkness has an enduring resonance. A single flame flickers, and wavers. It is alive and moves. It bends, and remains steady.  

Colour lends meaning to what we see, but it is also a gift in that, like music, it does not have to denote a particular meaning. The colour of a flower for example simply shines forth; it is part of its identity. In the same way, colour speaks to me of choice. Its very existence gives us a reason to be creative, while choosing between different dyes, paints, crayons or inks, or picking clothes, flowers or food. To be in possession of colour is to know a kind of richness. 

I am trying to think as widely as possible: the tin bath in front of the fire; the ritual baths that are used for instance in Judaism or Hinduism; public baths; open pools and rivers. Across time, people have found a way somehow to honour the body’s need for relief and immersion in this other element. Surrounded by water, there is not an awful lot that can be done, except to move, to be still, and to be.

It is a detail such as this that brings the literary text of the Bible to life for me. In the preceding verses, the whole cast of Jacob’s future life has been set in motion as a result of the directions of his father Isaac. But then Jacob embarks on a journey to Haran, and because the sun sets while he is on his way, he stops at the place he has come to, ‘took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.’ Who knew that pillows were so important? Clearly we have been needing a place to rest our head for about as long as we can remember. 

Image by klimkin from Pixabay