When Giving Up Isn’t

Photo by Sedki Alimam on Unsplash

“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”

Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot

Maybe other people go through life without regularly reexamining their own actions, striving to improve. I don’t know. What I do know is I can’t help but look back in order to look forward.

And looking back, I’m starting to realize that a central theme of my life since childhood has been shame. Specifically shame from failure.

One instance of a shame that has haunted me in adulthood is having walked away from an uncompleted Master’s Degree. To understand the significance, you need to know how close I came to completion. (No humblebrag, just fact.) I’d finished every needed course—two solid years of study—with an A grade in all but one, a B. (My graduate entry GREs had been a perfect 800 in both the language and logic sections, a 760 in the math.)

All that was left was the formality of a final, comprehensive exam. And for the first time in my overachiever’s life, I partied through the night before, unable to study. Then walked into the test, filled in two sections, thought “There’s no way I’m making somebody read this bullshit,” and walked out, half finished, never to return.

Jennifer had labored hella hard to keep a roof over our head through those years, and we’d gone far into debt with student loans, but for some goddam reason, I just couldn’t step through that final door. I rationalized it with the truth that I was already working full-time for a game publisher, more than 40 hours a week, with a family of 4 children also needing attention. But even then I knew it was clearly a rationalization.

Nowadays I recognize it as an unconscious walking away from a trap. Getting that Master’s would have led further into a career in academia; there was no way this guy here could have done otherwise: Pursue a PhD, then the pursuit of increasingly rare tenure somewhere, to spend my life writing post-Transcendental Derridian Subjectivist critique of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus or some such. No disrespect meant for PhD’s, but my soul would have withered.

That “walk away” doesn’t feel like rationalization. It feels like an unconscious pattern of turning away from traps, to instead achieve something joyful.

I had walked away from a great factory job after eight years, by not waiting out a layoff. Because it was clear I’d never otherwise have the courage to leave, to risk entering college as an undergrad at 30. My dad argued that I should return to get in 10 years for a vested pension, and rightly that I could take courses at night. But I’d have never escaped, and nowadays that factory is gone, its pension program ravaged.

I had walked away from GDW, as much as I loved the company and companionship, and as much as my star was rising there, to take a job at TSR. And not long after, GDW was no more.

I had walked away from TSR shortly before its collapse—and please hear me out. For most of my colleagues that change was nothing but a blessing, folding them into WotC, which treated them like royalty, honoring their years of TSR service with WotC stock options, though that new employer had no legal obligation to do so.

For me and mine the move would have been destruction. It’s no exaggeration to say that some members were still traumatized by the previous transit from Illinois to Wisconsin. I couldn’t uproot them again without destroying the family.

There are other walkaways I could list here since, but you get the point.

Ultimately it has all led to this place. A history of paths taken and things achieved, because other paths were abandoned. And at last maybe I grasp that “abandon” needn’t be a synonym for “shame.” To paraphrase Stephen Fry, it needn’t necessarily bedevil me. It may have fed my better angels, if people who judge me less harshly than myself are to be believed.

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