Survival is of the first order. We must survive nine months inside our mother’s womb; we must survive birth and the perilous first months of life. We learn to be strong, to persist against the odds, to push, to please, to get our way. And yet all along the way we give up. We give up our first cry, our first pee, our first poo. Our baby teeth loosen in our gums and come out with a tug. We are consoled by the tooth fairy who leaves a quarter under our pillow. We give up our childish ways: pacifiers, diapers, teddy bears, raggedy blankets, training wheels on bikes. We give up the roly-poly years of being a toddler and walk to school and into a life of structure. We learn to tell time, spell words and add and subtract. We learn manners and games. We learn the difference between right and wrong and are no longer deemed innocent.
We are told in myriad ways over the years of growing up never to give up. This message is reinforced in adages, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” We read about heroes and heroines who slayed dragons, won wars of independence and vanquished evil, who did not give up, who never, gave up. We hear songs about valor and undying love and poems that tell us not to go gently into that good night.
When we do give up it is penance. We give up a favorite food for Lent. We fast for Ramadan and Yom Kippur. We go on diets. We renounce the ways of the world. We give up carnal desires and when we fail, as we always do, we recite prayers and give up treats to rectify our wrong doing. Giving up is always framed negatively whether as weakness or punishment. People who give up are losers or sinners. The refrain, only the strong survive, plays over and over in our heads.
With equal parts luck and pluck we do survive growing up. We navigate growing from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence into early adulthood. We become literate, learn to drive, cook, groom ourselves, get along with others. We become old enough to vote, join the military, drink, marry, have children of our own. None of which would have happened had we not survived.
Life becomes easier and more difficult. We know so much and can pretty much navigate on our own and our challenges become more complex. We advance in our career. Our relationships mature. Our children learn to survive on their own. We weather the storms, push harder, get tougher, refine our game. And all of this works just fine and proves our strategy of never giving up being perfectly right and it is until it fails us.
There are things in life that humble us. No matter how good we are, how diligent our efforts, how hard we try, life throws us a curve, something happens out of the blue, we didn’t see it coming and we don’t know what to do. Whatever it is gets the best of us. We lose. We have to give up, give in, and admit defeat.
Maybe it is love gone wrong, a relationship that cannot be fixed no matter how hard we try. Maybe we don’t make the cut, lose the promotion, get passed over by someone younger and stronger. Perhaps we fail as a parent and a child goes out of control. Maybe it is as simple as storm tossed tree falling on our house or a drunk driver who knocks us sideways and upside down into the hospital.
These are the best case scenarios. Someone else is to blame, a lazy spouse, an ill wind, bad influences, shit for luck. We didn’t want to give up. Our hand was forced.
The most insidious threat to our will to survive comes from within. We are betrayed by the body that has borne us through life and that supported all our endeavors. As years pass whether we want it to or not our body gives up its strength and its efficiency. All that was so hard won begins to ebb. No matter how well we care for ourselves, our bodies begin to show us our limits. Our old tendencies to be resolute, redouble our efforts, repent of bad habits, discipline ourselves may grant us a brief stay of execution. We may look better, feel better and last longer but not that much. Our cells may decide to multiply perniciously and cancer may become our inner enemy. Out heart may attack us, our brain may stroke out or cloud over. We get help from our new heroes, the women and men in the white coats with their scalpels and chemistry experiments. We may live to see a new day, have a second or third or fourth chance, regain strength and clarity only for it to ebb again. Sometimes the tide goes our dramatically and sometimes little by little. We see a little less well, hear a little less acutely, feel our sexual urges less ardently, eat more cautiously. Our bladders become unpredictable. Aches and pains come and go. Weariness is a frequent visitor.
Even at this stage when the endgame is obvious we don’t want to give up. We try to do what we’ve always done, put on a good face, stifle complaining. We don’t want to give up our independence, the keys to our car, the right to decide. The children we raised and nurtured in life become our parents. They argue it’s for our own good. We won’t give up until by persistence or deceit they win.
And so there we are and the end is nigh. All our lives we’ve been told never give up and now it is exactly what is left for us to do. The will has been written, family treasures dispersed, affairs put in order and there is the waiting, sometimes brief and sometimes slow as molasses. Everything we learned in life, all of the skills we honed to survive fail us now. We don’t know how to give up. It isn’t in our vocabulary.
There is another approach that is built into who we are but we rarely perceive it, don’t know much about it, and are wary of its mention, almost superstitious about giving it a name. It is called letting go.
Every breath we take we let go of. Letting go is how our body eliminates toxins and expresses grief and pleasure. Letting go is the sob of sorrow and the oh, oh, oh of orgasm. It is how we fall asleep and how we fall in love. Our mother’s wombs let us go in birth and our bodies free our spirits in death. If we learn to value letting go then aging becomes releasing and dying the big release. We learn by letting go of lost love, failed ambition, the need to control, to be right, to be perfect. We learn it is wise to listen to the body, to tune in to the cycles of nature, to be present in the moment, to be open to joy, to let love take us and grief free us. Whether we believe in a golden afterlife or the simple cessation of existence we will have one last breath, one last chance to let go. And may we go gently and with grace into a peace that passeth understanding.
WHEN GIVING UP BECOMES LETTING GO
Franklin Abbott c 2014