Sunday, April 06, 2014


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:
  1. I gave up on establishing utopia (on even a small scale!)
  2. I gave up on writing fiction
  3. I gave up on being an English professor
  4. I gave up on attaining enlightenment in this life
  5. 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.


rbarenblat said...

Reading this post, I find myself thinking that there are ways in which surrendering opens up the heart and the horizons.

And that I am so glad you have found your way to the Library foundation and massage and rambles with Martha. That sounds like a good life to me.

Lucy said...

Oh Dale, this is so helpful. Of course the wisdom to know the difference is always the problem, but the sense of freedom and expansion you describe must be a pretty good indicator. Another blogger I read a while back spoke of talking with and old friend about the need to 'get out of one's comfort zone' - ghastly cliché expression but it serves - and he asked 'Why?'. She recognised this as meaning not that one should never bother to do anything difficult and uncomfortable, but that there needed to be a good reason to do so, and she needed to identify it honestly.

I don't think we can always know how useful we are or aren't. Often perhaps the things which we don't rate much might be the most useful of all, unbeknownst to us. I often think just being here at all is pretty useless, so there's not much to lose:~)

And I too spent years castigating myself about phone calls to strangers. And writing my blogs does make me happy, even though it's sometimes hedged about with difficulty, so I shall get on to it straightway!

Zhoen said...

Letting go, of old assumptions and guesses. There, start there. Yes.

Sabine said...

Isn't it weird how our expectations clutter our life? All those far fetched ones, the ones we feel we 'must' have like careers and money and achievements and stuff. And how long it takes to understand what really matters (and how that changes over time). I am glad that I could read this post from you today.

Dick said...

A great post, Dale. 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better'.

Zhoen said...

1. Gave up on a career as an actor.
2. Gave up on a dead marriage.
3. Gave up the illusion of (my) parental love.
4. Gave up on athleticism for myself.
5. Gave up on the power of anger.

NT said...

I can't count all the big things I've given up, am still giving up.

I believe I am getting happier (not sure about the useful part).

Anonymous said...

Long list for me on things attempted and failed, things I could have maintained but at great cost: to sanity, energy level, relationships or spiritual grrowth: and so needed to stop: and having stopped, never regretted...long list of things people told me I could do, should do, with all that talent and promise that I wish I had given up on a long while ago too. Just glad I'm catching on now in my 40s. I needed to read this post from you too so THANKS again for a great post.

Lucy said...

Indeed, I think often when I've been trying hardest to be useful, I've just been being self-important and interfering and made matters worse. Sometimes I think you just have to wait and watch, and be open to possibilities but not go hunting for them or trying to manufacture them. Same goes for love I suppose.

Zhoen said...

Letting go of the lies and assumptions.

NT said...

Was this a covert birthday post? If so, happy birthday dear Dale!

Canaan said...

You have left a mark.

I have your blog bookmarked in the top bar of my browser, and when I click a button, there you are. You inspire me: To keep my eyes open, to keep running on jellied legs, to make eye contact. Mostly, to keep writing.

I've lived six roles in eighteen jobs to do. What I end up doing every time is writing it down. Everyone in the world makes a mark they don't get to see: for me, the dead woman in Texas. I pressed on her cold chest and held her child after, others pressing and breathing into her, when the water came out of her mouth foamed in spittle.

I think about that boy every day. He is almost twelve, now. He'll never recognize me but the thought of wrapping his little body in a blanket keeps me going: be kind before being angry.

Dale said...

Thank you, Canaan.