Giving Up

Some months ago my wife and I were treated during ward conference to a lesson taught by a member of the stake presidency (and not the one you’re thinking of, either). We always learn a great deal from this counselor, although, because he generally fails to think through the implications of his presentations, what we learn is typically not what he intended.

On this particular occasion he shared with us an incident from the summer of his 16th year, directed to the topic of perserverence. Addressing himself most especially to the youth of the ward, he described how he had decided, over the objections of his parents, to join an outfit selling encyclopedias door to door in a remote area of the country. After weeks of fruitless effort, having sold only one encyclopedia subscription, he considered whether his parents had perhaps been right and he should perhaps give up and return home. But he determined, as he put it “not to go home to his parents with his tail between his legs,” and instead to stick with his decision. He said he that is was a turning point in his life as he learned a valuable lesson in “finishing what you start.”

Our first thought on hearing this story was to wonder whether he had really intended for the youth of the ward to internalize he underlying message of his tale: that is, if your parents advise against a course of action, ignore them and do what you think best; it will turn out they’re wrong, and it will prove to be a positive experience in the end.

But our second thought was to wonder whether it was even a good idea for the youth to internalize the explicit message of his tale: to stick with a bad decision even after you realize it was bad, rather than having the courage and humility to quit. It may be that our stake presidency counselor learned a valuable lesson in perserverence by sticking with his hopeless task of encyclopedia sales for the summer. But it might also be that he would have learned more important lessons by returning home (not to mention possibly getting a more lucrative and enjoyable summer job).

Bruce Hafen tells the story of how he desperately wanted to be a world-class shot-putter, but he was simply physically to small — it really was hopeless. What a tragedy if he had wasted his life becoming a mediocre shotputter instead of a successful attorney, scholar and distinguished academic administrator. I once had much the same experience trying to become a bench scientist; I love science but am relatively poor at doing it. After considerable fruitless effort at getting the experiments to behave themselves, I finally redirected my energies into a different field that I found I am relatively good at.

Nonetheless, I cannot count the number of sacrament meeting talks on perserverence and positive thinking that poetically admonish us, generally in the sing-song iambic tetrameter that seems to characterize sacrament meeting doggerel, to “get up, get up, and win the race.” Why do we so often tell people this, rather than telling them to bag the race and take up badminton or chess or needlepoint or something where they can make a real contribution? The charge of the light brigade against impossible odds was glorious and heroic in song, but stupid and counterproductive in fact; they got themselves slaughtered and lost the battle. A pity that they didn’t give up and live to fight another day.

8 comments for “Giving Up

  1. I think the problem here is that deciding to “give up” really depends on the circumstances. You hear these “great” stories only to realize that your life won’t be played out the same way. I think he should have just gone home back to his parents. But then again, a teenager unable to graduate from high school because he/she is failing math shouldn’t just “give up”. Again, it depends. I can tell you stories that promote either way.

  2. Because the ability to persist is itself a virtue. Because persistence appears to be the final leg of the basic gospel (faith, repentance, baptism, baptism of fire, endure to the end). Because the charge of the light brigade was not in fact stupid and counterproductive, not from the standpoint of the people participating.

    As to why some of the persistence stories almost seem to teach bad values in addition to the persistence, well, dunno. Sometimes the personal stories people have that are on point aren’t always as neat as they’d like (still, one ought to point that out). Or, perhaps persistence in the gospel is a virtue most needed in those life moments when the gospel seems pointless and worthless, so telling stories of persistence for persistence sake are helpful?

  3. Bob — I agree that it depends a bit on the point at which you measure the “giving up.” Albert Einstein dropped out of high school (well, actually gymnasium — closest German equivalent) because he was failing math. The problem wasn’t him, or math, it was the school. Obviously, considering the way things turned out, giving up on the school didn’t mean that he gave up on math. But what a disaster if he had stuck to that course in the name of perserverence!

    I know a number of home schooled kids who had comparable experiences. Continuing to try to learn math in the public school setting just wasn’t the right way for them, and sticking with a system that didn’t work — especially just so as not to be a “quitter” — wasn’t going to do anyone any good. But he who fights and runs away . . .

  4. “Because the ability to persist is itself a virtue.”

    Is it? How do we know this? Why isn’t it the ability know when to quit that is the virtue?

    “Because persistence appears to be the final leg of the basic gospel (faith, repentance, baptism, baptism of fire, endure to the end).”

    Is that what it means to “endure to the end”? Persisting in courses of action that are mistaken, damaging, or useless? I thought enduring to the end had a lot to do with admitting when you had done something wrong or stupid and changing course to correct the mistake.

    “Because the charge of the light brigade was not in fact stupid and counterproductive, not from the standpoint of the people participating.”

    Um, Adam — most of them died in a massive strategic and tactical blunder. I don’t know about you, but I think I’d feel like it was pretty stupid and counterproductive for me to die in a screw-up. If it hadn’t been for the screw-up, they would most probably have lived and won the battle.

  5. B. Caswell:
    Interesting point about knowing ‘what’ to persist in.

    D. Burk:
    –The strategic and tactical blunder came from outside. The brigade itself didn’t blunder in strategy and tactics. Instead they showed amazing resource and dedication in carrying out their orders. If I were they I would not feel that I had done something stupid and counterproductive.

    –Is there any reason that making ‘knowing when to quit’ into a virtue makes persistence not one? Virtues are a multitude. You’re suggesting that persistence cannot be a virtue because it can misapplied. If so, then nothing is a virtue.

    I think we’re arguing somewhat different propositions here. I’m not suggesting that in all circumstances once one has embarked on a course one shouldn’t depart from it. I am saying that human affairs are murky, we are often beset with doubts and temptations, and a certain bulldoggedness can be a good thing.

  6. I also see something in this discussion on that I find different from my view of things. After studying Confucianism for a while, I realized it taught its adherents broad principles, but often left the fault line issues and applications to the individual. Even so in this case. Persistence is a virtue, as long as we are humble and persist in good things, asking for and receiving the Lord’s council when needed.

  7. Persistence is a virtue because a person’s natural quitting point is prior to the optimum quitting point. For most projects worth doing, the task turns difficult, the initial enthusiasm wanes, and people want to quit before the finish line. To get them through that valley, and push them forward, we encourage them to persevere for the sake of perserverance, because while they’re in the valley they aren’t able to clearly determine whether, in this particular instance, it is wise to invest more time and energy.

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