Tuesday, May 17, 2011
The Virtue of Quitting
Blogger lost my last post.
I'm not going to harp on it. I thought it was okay (well, pretty good) and who knows, maybe I'll wake one morning and find it in its completed form. Or perhaps I'll resurrect it, piecing it together from the early stage drafts that were saved.
But for now I'm quitting. Quitting seems like a pretty good thing to do.
I know that much of the world, well, much of the world that's responsible for getting the word out there is in disagreement with me on this; businesses, sports teams and, can you believe this, arts and entertainment outlets live by the never-say-die ethos.
It's amazing that they get anything done...
II. QUIETUS EST BONO
It's said that Archimedes was struggling with a project: He was to figure how much gold had been used in King Hierio II's crown, when he became stumped. Days without sleep, pacing around in warm sweat in the Syracuse sun had coated him with dirt and filth and stench.
His wife told him to take a bath.
He did. And during it, as he settled in the tub, the water rose and...IT HIT HIM!
He discovered (or was impregnated with the idea)! "Any floating object displaces its own weight in fluid!"
Archimedes would not only emerge on the other of his struggle, but he was giving the world the tool that would make all other projects possible.
And from a bath tub...
Which, very simply, was an act of quitting.
In 1981, Barry Davis was a 118 lb sophomore on the University of Iowa powerhouse wrestling team. He was in the midst of a breakout season when near the end the pressure got to him: cutting more than ten pounds before each competition, high expectations against formidable opponents, and general wear and tear had convinced him to quit heading into the National Qualifier Big Ten Championship weekend.
" I can't do it anymore." He wrote in a note to his roommates/teammates and headed off to gorge himself in peace, leaving wrestling for good.
The Iowa coaching staff and team, in serious contention for repeating as national champs, went looking Davis. Nowhere to be found, they quit and set out to the airport.
Giving it one last try, Coach Dan Gable stopped the team van at Supermarket on the outskirts of Iowa City. There was Davis leaving a register with an armful of groceries- a bag of potato chips and box of donuts peeked over the lip of the bag.
Seeing Gable, he froze:
"I haven't done anything yet!" He swore and handed the bag off to his teammates, who took him by the arm and to the airport.
He made weight on the flight to Madison, Wisconsin, won the Big Tens and went on to win three straight NCAA national titles and then to a remarkable international (Olympic Silver Medal; World Title) and superb collegiate coaching career.
One might argue that: "See, his teammates came through and made sure he didn't quit and he didn't."
Wrong. He did quit. Davis committed to quitting and was carrying through, if it weren't for his being found moments into the new freedom. Yes, it wasn't a only a few hours of freedom, but it was real and did the trick.
Sure, those who quit a few days later wished they sucked it up...but that's with the freedom! After the grueling season, a week away, it's amazing how fresh a wrestler feels.
Much as Freud posited that dreaming of getting a drink of water gave the thirsty dreamer a feeling of being quenched enough to make it through the night, Davis's quitting gave him enough relief to make it through his bout of angst.
And much should be made that he came out from the quitting a better wrestler. Had he fallen on his sword and trudged forward without relief, who knows, perhaps he would've taken fourth at Big Tens, hung in there to take top eight at nationals- he'd be good, very good, but maybe he wouldn't be the Barry Davis who won three national titles.
And maybe college would've been the end of wrestling for him. Anyone involved in international wrestling can tell you that a wrestler must be fresh; he must be capable of bouncing back, letting up when you need it, taking time off here and there, striving to peak during the big show (Olympics).
Davis's quitting prepared him for coping with the years of emotional battle that come with competing internationally.
IV. COLD TURKEY
I quit drinking about a year and a half ago; approximately 15 years after what would have been just as good time to quit.
I heard the old joke from drinking buddies: "Nobody likes a quitter..." as they ordered me a beer and said "Come on?"
The joke implies that not quitting is a virtue and that it only applies to that which is good ( sticking to your goal, etc.). And to not quit drinking would be just as virtuous. Irony: quitting drinking is not a form of quitting in the common sense of the word.
Quitting is quitting.
Anyone who has battled the bottle, even a bit, even: "gotta cut back and trim down", even those know that when you give up the booze, you are abandoning a lifestyle, people and a philosophy that you made a deep commitment to.
Quit comes from quietus and its meaning originally was consistent with "to be set free of" or "to free oneself."
Booze can have a full-time hold on a person, in the same way that Barry Davis on his way to the Big Tens felt only the burden of wrestling.
Some do the same with booze (though, I'm a little hesitant to offer you boozers an out- "Hey, this guy on this blog said you step away and come back"- more than likely, if you begin thinking booze has a hold on you, it does for good. Sorry. I did everything I could to avoid that myself.)
What Davis needed was to step away from wrestling and imagine himself as a person who wrestled, not solely as a wrestler. The drinker unburdens himself of the daily pangs of "When is work going to end, so I can have a few?" Stepping away from drinking frees you from the daily feel of needing to be a drinker.
Anything that overtakes our identity, whether we like it or not, if it's good or bad for us, burdens us.
Quitting takes that away...
Very simply: it's freeing.
Drinking is not a rare exception, and this isn't a cute play on the subject: Much of a conscious life requires what I can only characterize as quitting.
Quitting can bring a sense of freedom that helps a person create or go on through hard tasks...
In the late '70's Johnny Paycheck had a major hit with the song "Take This Job and Shove It." A man, after suffering too long, tells his boss to (SEE ABOVE). The song went on to spawn a movie of the same name starring Robert Hays, as well as an enduring attitude.
And where was the song most popular? (SEE COUNTRY MUSIC ARCHIVES). With the WORKING CLASS: those who toil and keep going. Blue collar workers weren't found floating beneath bridges with the song title tattooed to their foreheads, as the stick-to-its would have you believe.
The song, a quitting fantasy, provided them with the moment of freedom that they needed to go on to the auto plant or oil rig.
OR: "I'll give it five more seconds and then I'm bagging it!"
Thomas is eighteen years old. A Sophomore in high school, he started late and was kept back in third grade when his mother had held him out of school on more days than he attended. He made improvements in middle school, largely on the efforts of his teachers who put Thomas's self-esteem above all else.
As an eighth grader, still lagging in reading and math and sixteen years old, but physically more mature than his classmates, he became the most popular kid in his grade. Now, with "you can do anything" and "you have so much to offer" that he'd been paid in advance curdling in his stomach, he'd become a bully.
Beating up kids. Moving from one girl to the next. Experimenting with drugs. Becoming verbally abusive towards teachers. He teetered on something more serious happening, but always, fell short.
"Do you know how serious this could've been? Someone could've been hurt badly?" His teachers would tell him every other week.
Well, he never did grasp that or its gravity as he would go on to hurt someone quite seriously and now is facing very serious consequences.
Yes, I have quit on Thomas.
And perhaps, Thomas would have been better served by people who let him know along the way that they had quit on him; that they were not going to go along with him, telling him they believed in him while he had no intention of doing anything, asking that they "join him in the hypocrisy" as Mamet refers to those who live by a code of "trying to do my best."
How can you promise to try? You can only promise to succeed.
Cold, you think? A boy whose mother and father had quit their responsibilities to him and I'm quitting him, too?
But therein is the difference: His parents responsibilities were to support and nurture him. Our job, his teachers' job is to educate him.
Part of that education, and the education of all his classmates is predicated on a system of success and failure; finding one's strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes based on his achievement and growth.
Thomas heard more unwavering support than the average student, and he believed wholeheartedly in unchallenged talents.
He'd never played in a competitive sports league, ran middle of the pack in playground football and basketball, was two years older than his average classmate and soon his size-advantage would fade, and yet, he believed that he would be a pro athlete.
This isn't confidence building. This isn't a supportive environment that refuses to quit on a troubled student. It is a system held hostage by the belief we must never quit on anyone and by a student who intends to quit, in the final sense, and is biding time.
And really, we did quit on him. The average committed student and athlete faces rejection, failure and realization that people have withdrawn faith in their talents: team cuts, depth charts, playing time, losses, class placement and rank. Thomas was never given those opportunities for growth, not because we are more decent, because we were scared; scared on low he might be, how little he might have, how unfair things might be and how he might snap if exposed to real challenges.
Maybe a more natural process would've told Thomas he was too small and weak-armed to be a quarterback, but that he might make a helluva long-distance runner with training? Or perhaps he would've found a vocational education more suitable for him? Maybe he would like drafting and find that rewarding?
Louis CK calls vocational education the place "where dreams go to be narrowed down":
" Most schools told you that you could do anything...these schools tell you: 'We think you can about eight things."
8 things? That's bad? For the record, that's about 7.5 more things than the average high school student feels he can do. Louis is completely wrong about this, if what he's saying is that that's a bad thing.
The kid who devotes himself to one discipline- instrument, sport or craft- usually doesn't lack confidence...and they are more adaptable to change and culling new talents. Dabblers may be interesting, and with luck can translate it into something positive. But it's not the safe bet...
With no honest focus of failing and succeeding in anything, Thomas became an amorphous ball of energy that believed no path was unsuitable, no pursuit was unwise, and that no endeavor should be quit in favor of a better route.
Finding oneself involves quitting on what you are not. It also, as was the case with Thomas, relies upon people turning away from you when you turn away from yourself.
On long-distance family trips, I would pester my older brother:
"Quit it!" He'd say, meaning that a slap was soon to follow. Quit being a nudge. Quit feeling that every time we get in a car you feel the need (burden, even?) to piss me off! Or...whack!
My first lesson in the virtue of quitting.
As I finish this piece, I feel myself drifting away from this obsession with quitting (hopefully, you can wait until I've finished to feel the same). That's what happens.
With regard to my lost piece, some who adhere to a Thomas Edison approach might urge me to pull the scraps from the basket and find its worth in a new piece.
I'm not there. That piece is behind me. If I do come back to it, it will have to be different, or I'll have to find myself remarkably where I was when I wrote it the first time, which means that I didn't do the purging in the first place.
That's not good.
So, it's out there somewhere in the cybersphere free from me and me from it.
Wow, that feels good.