Knowing when to quit

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Being able to see two sides of an issue is not always a blessing. For example, I recently saw someone wearing a T-shirt that said, “Cowards never start, the weak never finish, winners never quit.” While I understand and can appreciate that saying, I also see just how wrong it can be.
The shirt is correct in that it can take courage to try something new. It’s easy to follow old patterns of behavior or stay at a job we hate or remain living somewhere we don’t particularly like. It also takes strength to continue doing something when it becomes difficult – to keep trying, even when we can’t tell if the results will be worth it. Certainly those who win haven’t given up. That’s why they reach the finish line.
Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is fulfil a commitment, rather than turning to something new. There are also times when it makes sense to be realistic and quit: after all, if you have absolutely no musical talent, you’re never going to be a professional musician. That doesn’t mean you can’t play for pleasure, but expecting to be first violin at a major symphony is just not going to happen no matter how hard you try. If you find the work you’re doing an unpleasant struggle, then sometimes it makes sense to look for other work – work that would make your life more enjoyable. Whether or not that makes you a winner then depends on how you define winning: does banging your head against a wall for something that won’t happen make you a winner, or is a winner a person who’s smart enough to give up and find a better path?
Should someone who went to law school have to work for a law firm and make partner if they decide that working 70 hours a week makes no sense? Yes, if they stick it out, they’ll reap the benefits. However, there may be benefits to finding another way to use their law degree and spend time with their family. What about people who realize that the occupation they trained for really doesn’t suit them? Are they weak if they quit their jobs and change careers? Or does that actually make them brave because they are willing to face an unknown future?
Some of my suggestions seem to contradict each other, which is why statements like the one above sound nice, but aren’t always useful. There are so many “what ifs” that make it impossible for me to say, “Yes, that’s the perfect saying.” I realize that it best suits those doing physical training, but as someone with a bad back, bad knees and problems with her feet, I know I’m not going to be running a marathon or taking part in a triathlon. Does that make me a coward, or someone with common sense who dislikes being in pain?
I understand the reasoning behind the saying on that shirt. I also understand how it can give people the courage to follow their dreams when everyone else says they’ll never make it or to push their bodies to be stronger. But, it still rubs me the wrong way. I know too many brave people who are restricted by bodily limitations. They are brave enough to face each day in spite of broken dreams and failures beyond their control. For me, that makes them winners in a very different way.