The Art of Giving Up


[Image: The words “I give up!” written on a white piece of paper. A hand is visible with a marker dotting the exclamation point.]

Right from the time that we can comprehend it, we’re feed this idea of never giving up. Ever. No matter what happens, no matter how long our struggle, all we have to do is keep pushing and keep believing and we will be rewarded for it in the end. Our society loves movies about people who overcome great odds to be successful. It shows them listening to those around them saying that whatever they want is too difficult, too impossible, too something, and they say, no, it’s not. I’m going to do it and it will happen. And then we cheer for them when they do.

But there’s a dangerous message in these stories that sometimes gets pushed to the point of absurdity. Sometimes we don’t know when to give up. And sometimes, we really need to. When I was reading Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession, I was struck by a particular passage that talked about how women (and men) in the media who fall into unrequited love are often rewarded by finally getting through to the object of their affections and, in the end, earn a relationship through their determination. The book references Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” as well as scores of romantic movies where men suddenly realize just how much they love the women that have been pursuing them, no matter how disinterested they were before.

Life, however, is not this neat. One thing that I found difficult when I fell into unrequited love was realizing that the fact that it wasn’t working was not due in any part to my lack of effort or attention. I wanted to blame myself, but there was nothing for me to blame myself for. There was nothing for me to do differently, there was no way for me to try harder. My goal was contingent on another person and that person did not have the same feelings. No matter how many times I had been told all throughout my life to never give up and stay the course and blah, blah, blah, it turned out that giving up was not only the best thing for me; it was the only thing for me to do in this situation.

But other situations warrant giving up as well. Singing competition shows, particularly American Idol, are focused on producing great vocalists. But not without showcasing the unfortunate people who have all of the confidence of a rock star with none of the vocal ability. There comes a point when, in order to be a singer, you need a certain amount of natural talent and you can hone that talent. You can’t take someone who has never hit an on-key note, even by accident, and turn them into Christina Aguilera. Someone who loves music, but has no ability to sing it could find much more productive ways of using their talents and finding personal fulfillment other than singing. But for someone to waste their time getting nowhere because they lack any semblance of a specific talent is just sad and pointless. Sometimes it’s a good thing to be able to realize that you are better served by doing other things and let something fall by the wayside.

Then there’s the flat out fucking dangerous side of things. When I was researching eating disorders for a health class once, I was stunned by the pro-ana community (sites reinforcing anorexia nervosa and encouraging its readers to starve themselves, among other unhealthy things) turning messages of not giving up into something that would send these people to their deaths. Not giving up on their dreams meant not eating until their bodies stop functioning. They would profess that their dream was thinness, but in reality, there was no goal. They would die thinking that they were too fat. And that was a dream that they definitely needed to give up.

Not to give up when things get difficult is a great message that can be very encouraging, but not to give up, ever, at any time, for any reason, despite the costs, is a toxic one that will only feed into pain and ultimately, defeat. Not all goals are achievable and the sooner we realize this, the better off we should be. All “Don’t give up, keep pushing” memes should come with an asterisk.

*Part of this blog was published in my book, Into Love and Out Again.