We’re taught growing up that giving up is one of the worst sins one can commit. Fail as many times as you want, but never, ever quit. Fall down seven times, get up eight. The quitter is the archetype to be reviled, spat upon, and feared. Feared that if you decide not to get up that eighth time, you’ll be cast out of respectable society and stripped of any right to support or empathy.
I think the “never give up” lesson is one of the most toxic ones that we still teach kids, and here’s why: there’s about a 99.9% chance that in your life, at some point, you have given up on something. So… now what? Game over, right? “Well, looks like I’ve failed at life! Time to go home and self-flagellate myself with the bootstraps that I so shamefully failed to pull myself up by.”
Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely think people should be encouraged to hold on in the face of adversity, to not acquiesce on things that mean a lot to them when the going proves difficult. But I think there’s a significant difference between saying that, and the narrative of “quitters never win” that’s been the craze for about as long as the ‘rags to riches’ myth has been around.
When you say that some things are worth fighting for, you’re saying that, when something sets your soul aflame, when something is so fundamentally powerful to you that causes you to ignite with vitality and purpose… hold onto it. Hold onto it until your knuckles turn white and your hands bleed. Don’t give up that feeling, because that is a feeling that is very, very hard to come by in life, and you deserve to feel it. Something that awakens passion within you such that it brings you to tears is worth undergoing strife.
The “quitters never win” narrative, on the other hand, has deep, deep roots in the “not enough, never enough” story that so virulently infects millions of people in our culture (and helps no one, besides). When you say to a child ‘never give up’, ‘quitters never win’, you are giving them an ultimatum; a warning. If you give up, you will never be worthy. You will never be enough. Never have enough, never do enough, and never be worthy of love or acceptance, even from yourself. To be a quitter is to be the North American equivalent of the Untouchable caste. The sheer amount of disdain and disgust we hold as a culture for those we label ‘quitters’ is absolutely remarkable, when you consider that everyone has done it.
And for what? To what positive end do we continue to perpetuate this myth? So that individuals can continue to bang their heads against a wall in a relationship, a job, a vocation, that isn’t working? For those who, having attained material wealth or cultural status markers of success, are still miserable (but don’t you dare give it up, after all you’ve been through)? Of course not, because stubborn misery is the North American badge of pride.
The reason I write this, is that having left school for a year, come back, and struggled, I only now just completed and submitted a take-home assignment for the first time in two years. For the longest time, the assignment would come up, I would become paralyzed by anxiety, not do it, and inevitably fail the course because, well… not doing assignments tends to result in that. But once I gave up once, I was a Quitter. The narrative I was so afraid of had manifested, and I felt locked into a role that I couldn’t escape. Yesterday (the day I submitted the assignment) had been the first time I had not simply given up in two years.
I won’t lie; I felt proud that I persevered. That I plowed through when I wanted to curl up in my bed and hide from the world. But I also realized… having “never give up” drilled into my head for as long as I can remember did me absolutely no fucking good. All it taught me was that giving up is bad and wrong, and if YOU give up, you TOO, are bad and wrong. It taught me nothing about asking myself why I felt overwhelmed. It taught me nothing about how to objectively assess my circumstances and emotional state to see what could be improved (whether that be working for different time intervals or at different times, seeing a counsellor, being assessed for a learning disability, getting a good social support group, confronting distorted thoughts I might have, etc). All it taught me was not to do the Forbidden Thing (that is essentially inevitable at one time or another in life), and if you do the Forbidden Thing, well you should feel besmirched and ashamed for such an ugly failure.
The “Don’t Give Up” narrative is about pride. Pride to be able to say, “I didn’t give up!” after the fact. Absolutely, you should feel proud for overcoming your own personal struggles, but pride over your past should not blind you to the fact that other peoples’ battles are yet to come. Battles where many are woefully underprepared. Pushing the next generation onwards with only “quitters never win” to help does about as much good as it would to an unarmed soldier on a battlefield. Instead of sending them out to get skewered by the slings and arrows of life and then rubbing their nose in the mud, let’s help them armor up instead.