Trip Until You Hit the Finish Line

Have you ever thought about what your greatest weakness is? Really sat down, turned off the world, and thought about it? Not the canned response you tell to your interviewer, trying to slip a selling point into a feigned moment of introspection. I’m talking about that one habit, that personality quirk that stops you dead and smothers your aspirations. It’s the bedrock beneath the wall standing between you and who you want to be. It’s hard to criticize yourself like that, and even if you find the answer, you might be wrong. But I think you have to find it, embrace what it can give you and then rip away what’s left, to mature. I don’t know if I’ve found my problem, but I feel like I’ve got a decent bead on it:

I always give up.

Yeah, this is another one of those posts. I’ll throw out the usual warnings that things could get dark here, and that some of this could ride the line for over-sharing. Some writers can say important things and make it all about their readers, injecting a sense of participation into a piece of work and making themselves blend into the message. I am not that writer. Whether through skill or style, the best I can do is relay my own experiences and hope they are meaningful to other people. That said, I’m an open book. I mostly write for myself, but there’s not much in my life that I keep private. I’m not a very prideful man, but what I do have can survive people knowing most of my secrets.

I’ve spent a lot of my life giving up on things. Giving up because they are too hard, or too boring, or because there’s an easy alternative. These lessons were drilled home early, being taught time and again to hold nothing too tightly. I’m sure my story is familiar to many of my generation- absentee parents, harsh moves across the country, unreliable friendships, the standard aches and pains of being young. I leveraged all of these pains as an excuse to not try, and those around me were usually obliging. A divorce meant not having to try in school, and once that well ran dry, having nobody at home to enforce work just maintained the status quo. I limped through my education, smart enough to pass, but not driven enough to try. English classes were the only ones I ever made the attempt in, and even then only when I got the chance to write stories. I didn’t care much for poetry, nor for reports over books that put me to sleep. Whenever there was reason to try, there were ample escapes provided. My mom was working 7 jobs at her height, and she was more concerned with keeping my brother and I happy and moderately-adjusted with her precious time at home than enforcing many rules. There wasn’t a lot of room for the tough love I needed to mature. When my brother tried to teach those lessons, he was met with a little brother all too ready to cry to mom. With five years difference between us, we were always at wildly different stages in life, but not quite far enough away to make him the distant authority figure that could put me in my place.

I wasn’t a little shit or anything. I behaved, and my friends and I were harmless, more likely to play Gauntlet all night than get drunk. I learned enough in school despite my best efforts, I simply avoided difficulty. The same patterns repeated themselves through adolescence and into adulthood. I’d learn lessons, like all people do, but difficulty was usually met with evasion rather than perseverance. I spent a year after high school doing pretty much nothing, avoiding both full time work (opting for a hand full of part time jobs) and further education. I dodged conflict with roommates, responsibilities to friends, and personal growth with the skills of a true master of my craft. There are plenty of failure examples here, but many of them are probably familiar. Everyone has fought their battles, and some of them are documented here. Giving up quickly became life as usual. What really stands out are the rare moments I stood back up.

Giving up is still pretty much an inevitability to me. After my brother’s funeral, I spent a few weeks deep in thought, and it brought clarity. I realized this pattern, and resolved to stop it. I started writing again in earnest- then quit for two months when it got hard. I was determined to become a great programmer- that’s a goal that I give up on at least once a week. I promised to focus on family, reopening lines of communication with my parents in a way I hadn’t for about a decade. There have damn sure been weeks I’ve thrown that one out the window.

The difference is, I find myself picking myself back up after giving up on those things now. I’m sure there are plenty of people who can look at adversity and push through. I’ve done it myself, sure, but more often I let it push me down. Now, however, I look back at all the things I’ve dropped, get pissed, and pick them back up. I’m writing again, and really trying to make it part of my life. I shake myself off when I give up on writing code and read another paper. I call my parents unbidden, despite the discomfort of unfamiliarity it initially draws up.

Really, all of the greatest and most important moments in my life have come from these times where I get fed up with giving up and pick up something I’d discarded. I had pined after my wife since junior high, and upon getting up the courage to ask her out, I discovered she had a boyfriend- to my relief, before I had the chance to ask her out. I gave up for years. It wasn’t until years later, when I had to decide if I would stay in Iowa and strike off on my own or follow my mom to her new job in South Carolina, that I dusted that one off. I had heard on the grapevine that this girl was single again, and decided to take my chance (and staying with my friends didn’t hurt). She called me the first day we were unpacking the new apartment. We’ve been together over 10 years now. She helped me pick up some more pieces- getting an education, taking care of myself, and trying to make something of my life. She cheerfully refers to herself as a very proactive gold digger.

That didn’t fix everything, though. At one point, I gave up on having children. It was what my wife and I had always wanted, but after four years of heartbreak, of positives turned to negatives, and of excitedly shared news that we then had to pull back- we stopped trying. We started believing the less painful path was to give up. Adoption was always an option, but it was hard to go through that rigorous a process when our hearts were still so scarred from repeated trauma. Eventually, we calmed and decided to just try once more, deciding that we didn’t want to live with that regret. Our daughter recently turned one and has figured out the fine arts of walking and dog-chasing.

The hardest one is when I gave up on having a strong relationship with my brother. I still loved every moment I spent with him, but the geographical distance was hard, and we only talked once or twice a month. I had accepted that this was our relationship, despite the excitement every time we talked. I’ll never get a chance to pick that piece back up. That failure set off other failures, flames spreading to the branches of a tree. I’ve several times given up on help for grief, dealing with other people, my own health, and far worse. But that failure has also spurred me forward more than any other.

So I try to shorten that distance between giving up and jumping back. I don’t know if I’ll ever be the guy who can stare adversity in the face and stand strong, but I can at least look back at my mistakes and try to correct them. I’ll stumble again, and again, and again. At least once a week I make the decision not to write anything, but the next day, I ignore that quitter and pick back up. I like to think it’s this hard for everyone, that doing the things that are important- the ones that really matter, that really fulfill you- are never easy. Maybe I’m just more willing to put my failures on display, or maybe I really do fail twice as hard as everyone else. It doesn’t really matter to me either way. Each time I fail, each time I give up, it’s a little bit easier to come back from it. I’m not afraid to show off those failures, the battle scars I’ve earned from a life lived. They’ll make that next success all the more satisfying.

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