Giving Up

When is the right time to give up? When is it okay to stop banging your head against the wall? Well, if you’re literally banging your head against a wall, I’d say you’re allowed to give up pretty much immediately. One knock of your noggin against the old plaster and you ought to have society’s blessing to move on to something else.

But most situations aren’t so clear cut. When should the middle-aged actor/poet/writer seeking to make it in the arts call it quits? What level of success is acceptable and when should one move on to other pastures?

Even with life itself there comes a point where people decide they no longer want to be here. I’m not talking about suicide per se (although I’m including it as well), but rather about old age and infirmity. I’ve known a number of older people who just decided to let go – leaving behind chronic pain and a kind of ennui at the remainder of their days.

Some have faulted them for relinquishing God’s precious gift of life. Others marvel that anyone should judge them for seeking to end their misery. When is it okay for them to quit?

Or consider Florence Foster Jenkins, the socialite who wanted to be an opera singer. (A biopic of the same name starred Meryl Streep.) Although she was a good piano player, her voice never reached those same heights. Was she aware of that? Did she know how bad she sounded or did she delude herself into believing she sounded the way she wanted to sound? The latter seems more likely.

Another example is Fred Astaire. A critic once said of him: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” Should he have given up? Obviously not since he became a Hollywood legend. But how many others who were encouraged to give up actually did so?

The problem with knowing when to give up is mostly in the timing. Van Gogh was encouraged to quit painting many times in his life, but he kept working at it through failure after failure, and he finally began experiencing a modicum of success just prior to his death.

The Astaire and van Gogh stories compel many of us to stick with our dreams long after we should walk away. Yet there are also many of us who quit too soon, after a few negative comments or a handful of obstacles.

I’ve heard people say, “If only so and so had stuck with the piano (or their relationship or college), their life would have turned out so much better.” And I’ve heard people say, “If only so and so had quit that job (or football or their horrible marriage) sooner, they would have been so much happier.” Yet we can never know the truth of those statements. We can’t know for certain whether quitting is the right choice.

So, when is the right time to give up? Obviously, it’s a personal choice, unique to each individual. Some people’s tolerance for pain is greater than others’. Some people’s passion or dedication runs hotter and requires more in the way of obstacles for them to surrender.

It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and judge, to say Amy shouldn’t have given up while Joe should have, but the reality is that none of us has the right to say when someone else should quit.

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