On Giving Up
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.
In a job interview in May 2019, I sat across the table from several creative, talented people and told them that the best work I’d written in my life wasn’t going to be published and would never be read, and that I’d had to make peace with that fact. I don’t think I’d known any of that until I said it aloud, but it was true, all of it, and the air went thin and sharp and ringing, as it does when you hear a true thing spoken. Lately I’ve heard a sword sing, rebounding from a blow, and the sound had a similar quality.1
As they were creative people, I believe they understood what I described; one is always burying and mourning something in that line of work. What I did not know at the time was that this interview also marked the end of a career. I did not take that job, though they were kind, and would have hired me—nor any other job in that industry. I prayed, I followed where that prayer led me,2 and a month later, I began something new.
That October I received a note that I couldn’t quite believe, in fact did not believe for an entire month, although I acted as though its contents were true: the novel that had been on submission for eighteen months and rejected everywhere would be published.
This did not change in the slightest the diamond that had waited for me on the other side of loss. I had picked it up and pocketed it when I put that dream down. By that time I had learned to sift for jewels in ashes, for there is a kind of gift that hides until your hands are open and empty.
Baldwin describes that diamond, freedom, in “Faulkner and Desegregation” in The Partisan Review in 1956:
It is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges. All men have gone through this, go through it, each according to his degree, throughout their lives. It is one of the irreducible facts of life.3
What he describes, what I am writing about, is not the lazy neglect of one’s dreams, where one speaks castles from the sofa and never lifts a finger for the foundation. It is the stunning blow at the end of years of striving. It is the old oak riven, the house collapsed.
The soul faces a free choice here: prolonged bitterness or surrender. “Bitter or better,” others have put it. In extremis, this is Frankl’s remaining “free decision” when all other freedoms are removed and life is externally restricted: “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.”4
The first English edition of Man’s Search for Meaning (under the title From Death-Camp to Existentialism) was published in 1959. In Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1960 You Learn By Living, she echoes Baldwin and Frankl, with an additional warning:
I think everyone, at some time in his life, has this happen to him, comes face to face with the bitter realization that he has failed in something that means a tremendous amount and probably in a relation that is close to him.
Life teaches you that you cannot attain real maturity until you are ready to accept this harsh knowledge, this limitation in yourself, and make the difficult adjustment. Either you must learn to allow someone else to meet the need, without bitterness or envy, and accept it; or somehow you must make yourself learn to meet it. If you refuse to accept the limitation in yourself, you will be unable to grow beyond this point.5
1956-60 was a decade after the end of WWII, when pain and denial were subsiding, and thinking could begin. A preacher named Martin had just led the Montgomery bus boycott. America was in the thick of the hopeful but bloody and uncertain struggle that would produce the 1960 Civil Rights Act. Erich Fromm and James Baldwin were mid-career. Arendt was about to blaze across the firmament. We have forgotten what they knew then: How to surrender. How to fight for as long as necessary and gracefully lose. How to dream new dreams better than the old.
Incense and offerings burned on an altar are an image of giving up, a literal gift given upwards in smoke. When we give up what is not ours to have, we are left with holy ashes; God has the sweet savor. So often, as Baldwin says, we grasp tightly what we know and have out of fear. We cling like children to ragged comfort, believing in the old blanket we associate with safety. Meanwhile, greater things have been prepared for us, and entire rooms of our being wait to fling themselves open. And we will never have them if we cannot give up the old rooms and the old things.
For those interested, I have candidates in an amusingly large number of award categories this year:
On Fragile Waves for novel (out in paperback on February 1, with corrections that I am thankful for, and that no one else will notice)
Stars Between, a 20-minute opera, for dramatic presentation, short form
“Small Monsters” for novelette (will be in The Year’s Best Fantasy vol 1, ed. Paula Guran)
“The Sugar Castle of St. Lucia” (in the recently published Shadow Atlas) for short story
If you’d like to indulge me, listen to the opera, but by no means should you feel obligated to vote for any of these.
You’ll have noticed by now that I have odd interests.
From Chapter 15 of George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin:
‘The thread is too fine for you to see it. You can only feel it…. You must lay your finger, the same that wore the ring, upon the thread, and follow the thread wherever it leads you…. But, remember, it may seem to you a very roundabout way indeed, and you must not doubt the thread.’
James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1985) 148.
Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959) 63-5.
Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn By Living (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1960) 66-7.