The Wisdom of Giving Up
So today is my birthday, and I’ve been doing the required thinking about getting older. About the things that I’ve learned and still have yet to learn. And while doing so, I keep thinking of a particular activity I planned for the Buddhist Youth Group I volunteer at.
The activity went like this: I prepared a bunch of quotes written on cards with no attribution. Half of the quotes were short, pithy passages from Buddhist sutras. The other half were some all-purpose inspiring quotes, both historical and modern. I’d share the quotes one by one with the members and ask them if they thought the quote was Buddhist or not, and why.
The point wasn’t to see if anyone remembered the sutra passages. The goal was for the youth group members to talk about Buddhist values in their own words by articulating how they decided a quote was Buddhist. What words sound like something the Buddha would say? And what are the red flags that show that a quote can’t possibly be from the Buddha?
The hardest part about preparing the activity was finding good not-the-Buddha quotes. I wanted to choose quotes that were obscure enough that your average bright teenager wouldn’t recognize them right away, but that the speaker would be well-known enough that your average bright teenager would know who they were after their identity was revealed. A lot of inspiring quotes are one-hit-wonders. I was looking for deep cuts.
In the end the activity went well. It created some good discussion, and the youth group members got into the “puzzle solving” aspect of it. But, as is so often the case, what I remember most about the lesson happened behind the scenes. Because the vast majority of the inspirational quotes I sifted through to build the activity all said the same thing.
They were all different variants of “NEVER GIVE UP.”
I should admit that this was a self-selecting group. The quotes were culled from English speaking, America-centric lists of inspirational quotes published on the internet. And, in that context, their similarity makes some sense. There is something in the American idiom that resonates with never giving in, despite what other people say or what prudence would dictate.
As an American, I have whatever that thing is too. I love an underdog story. I indefensibly cry during Rocky movies. But, regardless, these quotes strike me as terrible advice. Because one of the more difficult and valuable things I’ve learned as an adult is when it is the right time to give up.
When it’s the right time to break up. When it’s right to leave that job. When it’s time to change your plans. I, too, was raised on “never give up.” And I see the value in it. To me, not giving up is about overcoming fear with grit. But giving up well is about overcoming fear with wisdom.
Some of the most remembered moments in the life of the Buddha are all about giving up on one thing, paired with the determination to pursue another. The story of Prince Siddhartha leaving the palace to pursue a spiritual path is about giving up a comfortable life to face life’s problems head on. The story of the Buddha-to-be resolving to meditate under the bodhi tree is preceded by giving up on the dangerous ascetic practices that brought him to the brink of death, but no closer to peace. These stories are about giving up wisely just as much as they are about achievement.
It’s difficult to remember how brave giving up can be. Even in the Buddhist stories above, we remember the nominal failure together with the success that is soon to come. But that’s not how the decision to quit is lived in the moment. What takes courage and wisdom is giving up not because you know that success is around the corner, but because you know something’s not right. Giving up well means abandoning the known for the unknown.
My birthday also makes me think of my friend Aaron, whose birthday is two days before mine. He would have been 37 this week. Aaron had a great deal of wisdom earned from living through difficult times. And as an often overly-busy person, I remember a piece of advice he gave to me, the youth group members, and I’m sure plenty of others: “Whenever you want to start doing something, always think first about what you’re going to stop doing.”
That might not make it onto a quote website. But it still inspires me.