In her poem One Art Elizabeth Bishop begins:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
But what of the art of quitting? It is much like the art of losing, I think. But I am realizing lately that though I thought perhaps I had mastered the art, quitting is not easy. And it is not contained simply in a single act. But, like Bishop’s losing, it is an art that can be mastered. And in the end, I think I can conclude that like losing, quitting is no disaster. Even if it has taken me years in some cases to convince myself of that (much longer, I might add, than it took to convince myself that any of the things I have lost in the past were not disaster).
I think I was in my late 20s before I ever quite anything important. There were jobs I left for other jobs, of course. Projects I handed over to other people. And of course there were things I did earlier in my life that I stopped doing as I got older. Those were acts of quitting, I suppose, but they weren’t conscious acts. I did not wake up one morning and decide to quit playing the clarinet. Nor did I, one afternoon, decide to quite writing poetry. When I started college I did not decide that I would quit reading fiction. I just simply couldn’t find the time for years on end.
The first really important thing I quit, consciously, intentionally, and with a great deal of emotional angst was the church board. The second major thing I quit was the church itself. That decision process actually took a very different form, which I will discuss in a moment, and chronologically might be said to have come after the third major thing I quit, which was graduate school. Effectively in the span of two years I quit my association with the two institutional structures that had nearly completely defined my life since moving to L.A. I broke those ties intentionally. And, though, I do not regret any of these three decisions, they were much bigger decisions than the simple words “I quit” can possibly convey. And I am coming to realize that it is only the first of these decisions that I can talk about without feeling I need to justify it, though in many ways that decision is the most complicated to really explain completely.
I quit the church board because I was overwhelmed, exhausted by institutional politics, and needed to focus on school. That was the story I told, anyway. And no one ever faulted me for it or delved much deeper. In reality I quit for those reasons and because my life had been falling apart in some very specific ways for a couple of years before then and I desperately needed to extricate myself from a series of situations that were preventing me from putting the pieces back together. After leaving the board I continued in my role as treasurer for the church for about a year and a half. During that time I went to services progressively less often. Eventually I only went when I had to due to my role as treasurer.
If you had asked me at the time I would have told you I was taking a break. I couldn’t bear to really “leave.” It was my home in many ways. After I resigned as treasurer I ceased going entirely. Again, I thought of it as a break. There were things about my relationship to the church, and to some of its members, that I needed to work out. I honestly believed that I would go back. I’m not sure when I started to realize that I wasn’t going back but slowly I have had to come to terms with the fact that the reasons I ultimately left outnumber the reasons I stayed exponentially. In some sense I stayed because I didn’t know how to leave, because I had never quit anything big before. And in some sense I failed to ultimately frame my leaving as such to myself because I wasn’t sure how really to define myself in relationship to it. So much of my identity was tied to being a Unitarian Universalist and to being a member of that particular church that I didn’t really know how to define myself without it. Plus there was a great deal of trauma that came with my time there that I think I really didn’t want to face. Some of it was trauma from various things having to do with the institutional structure of the church and being in a power role there. Much of it was trauma of problematic interpersonal relationships that I simply lacked support to deal with. Looking back at things it is clear to me now that the right way to deal with those traumas was to leave, to learn the life lessons of how they happened, and try to protect myself from them in the future.
By clear to me now, I mean that in the past week I have realized that I am not going back. Period. I am not taking a break. I am not a former member who might go back. No. I quit. I am not sure when I quit. Did I quit 3 years ago when each Sunday morning would come and I could not will myself to get out of bed, get dressed and go, because I needed “just a little more time” to deal with things. And the thing is that I needed to come to that before I could move on? Or did I quit last week when–after a conversation in which I revealed much about certain aspects of the deep emotional pain that caused me to leave in the first place–I was driving home and suddenly had the thought “I’m not going back. I’m just not.” I think really it was then that I quit. At least it was then that I found myself feeling free enough to start thinking about visiting churches again. Because I think I needed to really really believe that I was not going back before I could feel justified in looking elsewhere for that home.
Obviously those two instances of quitting were complicated and the consequences took awhile to shake out completely in my life. Quitting grad school was different in some ways and the same in others. Everyone working on a PhD thinks about quitting. If they say they haven’t then they’re probably lying (maybe not, but I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone sincerely tell me they’ve never thought of quitting). But there is a great deal of shame that gets tied up in actually quitting, particularly when you’ve been at it for awhile. I quit the summer after my sixth year of graduate school. I was already a year past the department’s guidelines for when you’re supposed to take the oral exam defending your dissertation proposal. I essentially had until fall quarter to put together a proposal. And I could have done that. But one day it suddenly occurred to me that not only did I not want to but I didn’t have to. It was a complete and total epiphany. I couldn’t wait to leave the social event we were at so that I could tell B. that I’d decided to quit (he was considerably less excited by this revelation than I was). I will admit it took me considerably longer to tell other people, like my advisor and my boss. And there are lots of people that I never told at all. Indeed many of the people I went to graduate school with probably don’t know that I left, unless they heard it from one of the few people I did tell.
I don’t regret the decision. And really I’m not ashamed of it. I did what I needed to do for me. In some sense I “failed” but really only in the sense that I failed to force myself to continue doing something that was making me miserable just because I could continue doing it. I have no doubt in my mind that I could have successfully finished my dissertation had I wanted to. But ultimately it came down to the fact that I didn’t want to. And I couldn’t come up with a single good reason why I should put myself through something that was making me miserable in those circumstances.
Why then am I only now starting to openly talk about the decision outside my circle of close friends and family? In part it is because it is an easy decision to explain to people who aren’t in academia. It’s harder to explain to those that are. And it is particularly hard to explain when the answer to the question “so what are you going to do now” was a resounding “I don’t know.” Ultimately I don’t really know what I’m going to do in the long-term. I have ideas. I have dreams. I have aspirations. But in the short-term I have two research jobs that I enjoy a great deal and give me a great many of the things I loved about being in grad school without also weighing me down with the things I hated. Plus they pay me and give me health benefits. So you know, win-win.
I woke this morning from a dream about extricating myself from one of the aforementioned personal relationships that was related to my leaving my former church (see how I did that?). And as I woke the words that popped into my head were “it’s time to shed dead weight.” In many ways quitting was an act of doing exactly that. Some relationships, some processes, some expectations can be fixed when they are problematic. But sometimes you find yourself doing things that simply no longer make sense. You find yourself trying to finish them only because you started. And that is the time to practice the art of quitting. Walk away. As with losing, at first it may look like disaster but in the end, the art of quitting’s not too hard to master.