Staring at the bottom of your glass
Hoping one day you’ll make a dream last
But dreams come slow and they go so fast
We live in a society that seems to especially loathe quitters. We may not place them at the same level as, say, racists or pedophiles, but we hold the same general contempt for quitters as we do for bad drivers, oil tycoons, or folk musicians. It’s ingrained in the advice we give each other, the inherent ethic of achievement in our nation. How many versions of the phrase, “There is no failure except in no longer trying” can you think up? I know Elbert Hubbard, Chris Bradford, and Bruce Lee all composed variations on that theme. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn has a more flowery rendition: “The worst thing one can do is not to try, to be aware of what one wants and not give in to it, to spend years in silent hurt wondering if something could have materialized – never knowing.” From Norman Vincent Peale urging us to believe that it’s always too soon to quit, to Fannie Flagg telling us to never give up before the miracle comes, or Emma Goldman asking us to believe that our ability to dream is all that keeps us alive, the gospel of unflinching optimism is woven into the fabric of our collective attitude.
But this begs questions in my mind. What about the dreams of people who can never achieve their goals? The would-be dancer with balance so bad she makes a Jenga tower look stable. The man with a heart for healing but no stomach for bodily fluids. We’ve all seen enough episodes of American Idol to know there are some people who should – must – take a long, serious look at whether they can achieve what they hope to achieve. And the obvious examples aren’t the most difficult to deal with. What about the people who get close enough to a dream they can smell its musk, but never quite close enough to apprehend it? There are writers who have written books that will never get published, and there are published books that will never sell. There are professional football players who will never make an active roster, or play in an actual game, much less drive their team for the Super Bowl winning touchdown. Is it quitting on yourself to make subtle edits to your fantasies?
That doesn’t even touch on those tortured souls who have all hope beaten from them like a slave driver whipping a runaway. Some actors can’t take the devastation of another failed audition. Some hearts can’t survive further breaking.
I guess I’m wondering, is hope alone sufficient? Is it a failure to let go of an unattainable dream if we find a new dream? Does it matter what vessel we use to store our hope so long as we keep it near and pour it into another once it cracks?
There’s a great exchange in the film State & Main where a writer, Joseph Turner White, is in search of a typewriter. “I can only write on manual,” he says.
His director shrugs him off, “I know the feeling.”
“That’s a lie. You know, that’s a real fault.”
“It’s not lying,” the director says. “It’s a gift for fiction.”
We have an incredible ability to spin our narratives to maintain a narcissistic belief in our heroism and achievement. “It wasn’t giving up. It was opening a door for a new dream.” Or something to that effect. (Perhaps one of my various PR savvy friends could suggest a better spin.) Now I’m not suggesting that we should give up on fresh perspectives or looking at things in a new light. I’m saying that we know well enough when we are lying, and that honesty ought to be a higher value than not giving up, not quitting. Maybe quitting is not the same thing as defeat. As the novelist Mark Halperin puts it, “What happens when you let go, when your strength leaves you and you sink into darkness, when there’s nothing that you or anyone else can do, no matter how desperate you are, no matter how you try? Perhaps it’s then, when you have neither pride nor power, that you are saved, brought to an unimaginably great reward.” Maybe, just maybe, we ought to live in the space between the understanding that we cannot accomplish anything without believing, and that there may come a time to let go, and if we must let go we can do so without regret or shame. As the great philosopher Beyonce said, “Thank God I found the good in goodbye.”