What do I most regret, looking back on 56 years? (about which I regret very little, all told, I should say.) I most regret not having given up sooner.
I see lots of inspirational slogans about perseverance, but not very many about recognizing defeat. I wasted a fair amount of time not recognizing some things that weren't all that hard to figure out: that some ambitions were unattainable, that some expenditures of time and energy were unsustainable. The trouble is, of course, that "give up" appeals most to the people who should persevere, and "persevere" appeals most to the people who should give up. So, why I'm writing this, I don't really know. Personal reference, I guess. G'night!
There are goals that you can't really give up and remain human: the goals of being happy and useful, it seems to me, are non-negotiable. “To love and to work,” as Freud said. But there are goals that people commonly mistake for these: the goal of having a certain sort of love life, say, or of having a certain career, become so identified with “happy and useful” that it seems to them that in talking about giving up one, they're talking about giving up the other. No wonder they resist any talk of surrender so fiercely. But in fact there are many, many ways of being happy and useful, more ways than any one person can imagine. The ways that are handed to us by parents, storybooks, and movies may not be possible at all; or they may not be possible for people of our particular propensities, abilities, opportunities. There is a time to stop beating your head against the wall.
Here is a list of the major surrenders in my life, in roughly chronological order:
- I gave up on establishing utopia (on even a small scale!)
- I gave up on writing fiction
- I gave up on being an English professor
- I gave up on attaining enlightenment in this life
- I gave up on being a computer programmer
That's a lot to give up, and that's only the major ones, and only the ones I feel comfortable talking about in public: I gave up on other things too, such as achieving fluency in Tibetan, and becoming comfortable making phone calls to strangers. I should be miserable, right? In fact, each major surrender – difficult as each was: each resulted in weeks or months or even years of distress – marked a palpable increase in my happiness and usefulness.
And – this is maybe the most interesting and unexpected thing – each surrender has been followed by a sense of expansion, not contraction. The world seems wider, the possibilities greater, the future less limited.
The losses are real, don't mistake me. I mourn all of them. But as I say, I regret none of the surrenders: I only regret having delayed them. I regret the year I whipped myself to write fiction, grinding out a few short stories at the cost of incredible self-inflicted suffering. I regret the years I spent (not) finishing the two dissertations I started; I regret the years I spent trying to make myself into the sort of person who makes a successful career at IBM. None of those things were going to happen; nor – it becomes increasing obvious to me – would any of them have made me a lot happier or more useful.
What makes me happy and useful now, insofar as I am, and so far as I can see (which is not at all far, and that's one of the lessons) – what makes me happy and useful now is writing my blogs, doing my half-time work as a data entry clerk (mostly) at the Library Foundation, doing massage, and going for rambles in the Gorge with Martha. None of it is distinguished, or remunerative, or special; none of it figured in my youthful ambitions; none of it will leave a mark. But I only wish I had found my way to it all sooner.