When Is It Okay to Give Up?

Many people have complimented me on my courage and persistence lately, as I continue to struggle with my MS. The question though, really, is what is the alternative? Is it some great virtue that I refuse to cop an attitude and grow whiny and ask “why me” every five minutes? In the face of a huge challenge like this disease, when exactly is it okay to give up? Is there a point where that could ever be rational?

Let’s start with the facts. I have a disease for which there is no cure. Everything happening in my body right now is completely beyond my control, which is to say there is nothing that I can directly do about it. Even nutrition and my daily injections will do nothing at all to modify the outcome of this current flareup. This adds up to one thing: powerlessness. My chosen coping methods (praying, meditating, and staying in the present moment) make a huge difference in my attitude, but are not treatments for the disease itself.

Given this basic state of powerlessness, the question is whether hanging in there, or giving up, is the best thing to do. I think, frankly, the situation calls for both. There is a great deal of giving up I must do. I must give up my illusions of control. I must give up the notion of myself as master of my destiny — clearly I am not. I also must be willing to hold on loosely to dreams of recovery. I hope it comes, but I don’t know, and I cannot afford, emotionally, to attach high hopes to the prospects of recovery, whether full or partial. Besides, if I console myself now by hoping for recovery at a later time, I’m taking a dangerous shortcut. It’s one more way of believing I will be okay if only my external circumstances are okay. But I want to be okay either way, don’t you?

That is the letting go I must do. And it is only as I do that letting go that I will be able to hang onto what I must hang onto. It is not hope of recovery I must cling to. It is not the notion that one day I will be perfectly well in heaven. It is the sacredness and beauty of the present moment (Biblically, “Now is the time of salvation). Of course when a person is extremely ill as I am, they often wish to run from the present moment, viewing it as the source of their problems. But the present moment is not the source of my problems. As I sit typing these words I am in my living room at home — the place where I feel safest. Christy and one of my girls are sleeping, and that feels peaceful. The other is in the tub. It is quiet. I am doing what I most love to do, writing and thinking. I am covered by an electric blanket placed on my lap by the beautiful women in my home who love and care for me. I am wearing “hot booties,” slippers Christy bought me that you heat in the microwave. I can’t feel my legs, but as long as I don’t try moving them I’m fine. My cousin Becky, whom I haven’t seen in over 30 years, is sending me words of love on Facebook. I keep hearing “popping” sounds as my Facebook friends chime in and tell me I am loved and thank me for my role in their lives. Christians, you may choose to say it is “God” in this moment, and that’s what I believe. Others may say it’s the universe or whatever they prefer. Whatever you call it, it’s profoundly good, and it’s a gift that is always available right now — and so we call it “the present.”

I’m just not sure life gets much better than that. Yeah, I know, it would be better if all this were happening when I were NOT paralyzed, but that’s not how it works. You can’t take off work for weeks at a time and sit around interacting with people who love you on Facebook just for the heck of it. But when the moment comes, you can resist the powerful urge to ostrich. You can reach out, and let people love you. If you do, you will see how much they need to be doing exactly that. I know when my friends are sick I need to love them — but it’s harder when the tables are turned, isn’t it? It’s easier to love than to let others love us, to serve than let others serve us. My role for right now is to let others love and serve, and every time I do this, I learn humility. By the way, you will learn much more humility in life letting others serve you than in serving others. When you serve, you’re the one who has something to give. When you are served, you have nothing, and you take what someone else is giving. Which is more humbling?

So the answer to the question, “When is it okay to give up?” is that it depends on what you mean when you say, “give up.” There are a lot of things life is going to strip away from you whether you want it to or not, and the sooner you give up and stop fighting over what is no longer yours, the better off you will be. And it is never okay to sink into a permanent state of depression or self-pity (though they will both get their time on stage). Life will always have beauty in it, no matter how dark the days get.

As for me, I have already decided what I will do, no matter where this goes. I will let go of what I cannot keep, so that I can embrace the things I cannot lose. If I cling to walking as a condition for happiness, what will I do when I am old? If I cling to being self-sufficient, what will become of me? If I cannot be happy unless my whole body is functioning on all cylinders, then God help me, I am already on the way down. If I can give up the need for these things (and I think that’s in process), then I will find the life that is there to be gained when everything I thought was life is gone. How do I know this? Because it’s happening every minute, every hour. I feel in my bones this peace that passes understanding and it is not because of all I have learned or done — it is because of all I have learned to let go of.

When it is okay to give up? Never. Ever. Ever. And right away, right in this moment.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • David,

    A precious friend who’s witnessed my battle against MS shared a link on my Facebook wall to your “When Is It Okay to Give Up?” I’m so blessed she did and have told her so.

    Along with being a great read from an amazing perspective, I so identify with your quote “Life will always have beauty in it, no matter how dark the days get.” I’m thanking God for you David!

    I’m 13 years into my battle and in October 2012, I took a disability retirement from a nearly 25 year journalism career I so loved. I didn’t sit in my lift chair and count the passing hours. God had long given me passion for encouragement writing. Today, He and I are sharing His Good News via the online ministry, Fishes and Loaves Living. (https://www.facebook.com/FishesAndLoavesLiving)

    Where it and other encouragement writing projects God’s given will go, I have no idea … but the God who gave the ideas surely knows and that’s good enough for me!

    Ironically, some of the people closest to me let me know I bailed on my career. I looked OK and it shouldn’t have been a problem to just sit at my desk and work. I got blank stares when I tried to explain MS fatigue by saying I wasn’t sure I had enough strength to take my next breath. I understand they can not or will not understand. My God does, though.

    Wraparound Blessings David!

    • I am so delighted that you managed to reach my blog and you took the time to share your perspectives. I will surely check out your website, as I am really interested in what you might be doing there. Your comment here added so much dimension to my post. Thanks for your contribution, and I hope our paths continue to cross. Peace and blessings to you on your journey!

  • Lizzie

    As I sit here in my living room… On my “couch bed” I’ve been sleeping on for the past two weeks as my babies have been sick.. I read this blog post out loud as my mother listens on in a nearby chair.

    I have a folder in my inbox just from you. From conversations we’ve had and words of wisdom you’ve taken time over the years to give me. Words that even today I remember and think of often.

    My mom asks for updates often this week of how you are. “Has Dave posted an update?” And I will check, and read her the latest.

    Until this post, she wondered why and how you could be so “accepting” and not be talking all of the time about God’s ability heal and why you weren’t holding out for that.

    This post, I believe helped her to understand. and I believe it also ministered to her. Dave, you know a lot about my moms journey… And the depression she’s lived through. Your thoughts on living in the present moment are beautiful.

    I know this time isn’t easy for you… I love you and am praying. And yes, I am praying for God to heal you from this awful disease as I have been since God brought you into my life when I was just a young girl.

    I love you! Thanks for always loving me as one of your own “girls.”

    • You are one of my own girls, just from another time, another place, and another way. Thanks for taking a few minutes to write these words down. It will encourage my readers, as it has encouraged me. I ask nothing more from God than what God has given. Since my diagnosis in 1990, I have lived mostly disease-free for 22 years. I played with my babies on the floor, rode roller coasters with them at Cedar Point, carried all three of them up the stairs to bed night after night. I have run the Crim. I have completed graduate school, entered the ministry, built amazing relationships with “kids” like you who I cherish to this day, planted a church of my own and seen it begin to mature into something truly unique that I am deeply proud of. I have trained up a beautiful and inspiring and faithful new leader and launched him out to plant a church of his own. I have begun teaching college and then graduate school where I train other counselors. I have written a book! I have reached my 25th anniversary with my high school sweetheart (this Feb. 27)! I have built a private counseling practice where I get to help people on a totally different level.

      My life is amazing. I look back over my life and I do not see sickness, I see blessing. And that includes the past week. Sometimes we pray for healing, but all we need to do is learn how to live into the healing and wholeness that are already freely available. That’s what I’m going to keep doing, no matter what the future holds. Thank you, and say thanks to your mom for caring as well.

  • Kim Nebel

    When would it have been ok for Jesus to give up? I think it’s acceptable to give up when God decides it’s time to take us out. We are here because we have something to learn and or teach Your explanation of having to give up certain things in order to hang on to what truly matters is so profoundly wise, it struck me with the kind of awe one gets when encountering something inexplicably beautiful. Clearly the things we easily cleave to as valuable, aren’t the things God wants us to value. If they were, He would make sure we retained them. If letting go draws me deeper into the heart of Jesus, I want to do it! Thank you for this new prayer. You have always been a blessing to me that I’ve never deserved.

    • Those are such beautiful and encouraging words, Kim, to both my readers and me. Thanks for commenting.

  • Ruth

    Dave,
    In the last month of my husband’s life we came to some form of giving up, some form of letting go and accepting the situation. We had done all we could. There was nothing else to do, no more chemo, no radiation options, no surgery would help.
    For Christians around us I think they found it very difficult that we weren’t still banking on a miracle.
    I know God could’ve done it. I don’t question His ability. But I also know that although we had prayed and had many others praying we never really sensed that was what was going to happen.
    Mark died a month later after surgery just as the surgeon predicted it would happen.
    I’m thankful that Mark and I had come to terms and accepted the reality as best as we could in advance. We could’ve spent that last month forcing him to do some other last ditch effort to get well. It wouldn’t have mattered. Just would’ve wasted the few days we had left together.

    Instead…we got a wheel chair and a hospital bed and I brought Mark home. I took him to a math award day for our oldest daughter and a young author event where I’ll never forget him holding two thumbs up to Lauren as she walked across the stage for her certificate. I’ll never forget wheeling into church and sitting together as a family those last few weeks. I’ll never forget the ordinary moments of taking a nap together, or sitting together in our two person chair.

    I know many struggled with it. They wanted us to fight more. They were concerned that Mark had given up. But honestly…I think we were just trying to do as you say, accept life for what it was and live in the present moment. Mark and I even went by limousine that month to a Billy Joel Concert. It was our last date.

    It was less than ideal…I was helping him get in and out of a car, dealing with a wheel chair in a stadium and pushing his pain button all the way home because he was so done in. But we did it and we experienced some joy listening to music we had always loved.

    I think your thoughts in this post are wonderful.
    There are many things we have no control over. And even the things in which we think we have control…we really don’t. We must come to terms with that kind of letting go.

    You often come to my mind these days and I continue to pray for you. Peace in the present is so important.

    Thank you for your honesty. I shed a few tears this morning as I read your post, simply remembering last cherished moments together with my husband. I’m so grateful that somehow God helped us to make the right choices about how to spend our time in those last days. I have no idea how we were prepared to do that…except simply through the grace of God.

    • This comment is incredible, Ruth. It adds so much dimension and truth to my post. Thank you for the time you took to write it.

      I totally love what you said about people being uncomfortable as Mark reached the end that you guys were giving up. Ruth, seriously, what are we going to do with this evangelical culture? For real. A lot of good people, but my gosh, the level of fear, of fantasy-based thinking (which is completely different than submission to the will of God), and of guilt is just astonishing. It never surprises me and I’ve been around it all my life. Heck it took my 25 years just to even start seeing it for what it was.

      The fear and guilt are so repressed, so denied, that they have nowhere to go but out, and all over anyone else who happens to be closest. And when it comes to issues of death and suffering, it just gets ramped up because people (both religious and non-religious) are partly responding to your suffering but often mostly responding to their own fear that your suffering causes them about their own life. It reminds them of the inevitability of suffering and death, that indeed it can and does and will happen to everyone, that no one is going to escape it. So you see these, “Have faith, God can still work miracles” people who just have to believe somehow the one suffering has brought it upon him/herself through lack of faith, or that it is only through lack of faith that healing has not come.

      It’s really a remarkable, and sad and frustrating, phenomenon. Worthy of its own post someday.