For several weeks now, I have been thinking about that question. My history and my nature makes me want to answer the question in the negative and say: No, never give up. When things aren’t going well, try harder, keep looking for new solutions, new ways to make a dream, a product, a relationship work. But then I remember a workshop that I attended long ago where the speaker, Dr. Albert Ellis, suggested that sometimes the words, try harder, are hot pokers we learn when we are children that often becomes a real pain in the side when we are adults. To be completely honest, Ellis used another word for “side,” but you can figure that one out. So, the question of trying harder mutates into the question, “when is it time to give up?” And while the answer is always situational and dependent on the individual, below are some general guidelines.
Consensus is that when all alternatives have been explored, and all possible solutions creatively sought are exhausted, it is then and only then OK to say, “Enough, I am done.” This expresses the hot poker approach. With this approach one gets heated, sometimes beyond both physical and emotional tolerance.. A cooler approach to the “try harder” injunction is to add the codicil, “when it makes sense.” Thus, the question, “Is there a time to give up,” mutates into the question, “When is the time where trying harder does not make sense?”
Trying harder does not make sense when a dream is dead. For example, I have a son who wanted to be a lawyer since he was nine or ten years old. He saw lawyers winning criminal cases on exciting TV shows. He saw lawyers getting people freed of trumped up charges in the comics. He learned in school that Abraham Lincoln, his favorite U.S. President, was a lawyer. He was energized throughout middle and high school, and remained so during his four college years. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he was elated when accepted to three law schools. He was very excited to select and then attend one of them. It took him all of two months to realize that law school would not lead him to a career anything like his dream career, that which he saw in TV. While Lincoln was able to practice pass the Bar Examination from mostly self-study, my son would have to spend three years in school learning things that he was not interested in learning. He had decent grades, but in his first semester he decided that trying harder to achieve a long-term, largely fictional goal made no sense. He quit! I was still tethered to what I thought was his life’s dream and was sad. I was wrong. He was happy when he quit. And I have learned that It can be very unsettling to reach a goal, and find that the goal is no longer desirable.
It is also time to stop trying harder when you are physically and mentally exhausted from trying to achieve or save something to the degree that it consumes everything else in your life. When trying to hold on to a marriage that no longer works, a job that is unfulfilling, a friendship gone sour, takes everything else out of your life, it may be time to “give up.” Because of the childhood hot poker, voices in one’s head may be saying “never give up,” but to save your health, and perhaps your spirit, those voices need to be silenced. No one thing should ever take over all of one’s being.
There is a time when it is an absolute necessity to stop trying. If you want to do something that takes more than one person to accomplish, and, if there is no way to obtain the support needed from others, you will have to give up the goal however noble. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Joan of Arc, Yitzchak Rabin, for example, each had goals, and each championed a cause that was more than one person could accomplish, but all of them garnered followers. Even so, each died far before the goal was reached. Without followers, not one of the leaders mentioned would have succeeded. When there is a goal that you can’t reach alone, and absolutely no one to help, it is time to stop trying.
In situations where trying harder diminishes one’s self esteem, even more, when it deadens one’s spirit, it makes sense not to try harder; not to fix what externally is broken. Instead it is a time to be gentle with oneself. Rather than try harder, exercise self-compassion. These are things I have been thinking about lately. It seems that there is a time to reap, a time to sow, and maybe a time to do neither and just be kind to oneself.