A Defense of Quitting

bfb57b9c867ae8548c4c515839068210I had to throw away a pot of tomato soup I was making today.

I’d browned some bacon as the base of the soup, and as the  bacon cooked, I noticed it developing flat grey spots, as if it had gone bad. When the bacon came out of the pan, I tasted it (because fresh bacon, duh!) and discovered that it just tasted old. Stale. Not like bacon.

By that point, I had my soup pot nicely filled with an onion, three tomatoes, a cup of tomato sauce, and half a box of broth. The whole thing was simmering away nicely, in the juices and oils from the cooked bacon. It looked delicious, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about cooking, it’s that you don’t take chances with meat. So I moved the whole pot to the back of the stove and had leftovers for lunch instead. When the soup is cool, I’ll pour it down the drain.

Tomato soup is not the only thing I’ve thrown away recently. A few weeks ago, I put aside Mary Doria Russell’s A Thread of Grace, a novel about Jewish refugees in Italy, during World War II. I really wanted to like the book, but it had no plot and its characters blurred together. I returned it to the library.

I feel a little guilty about both these decisions. I am not a rich woman, and I have strong convictions that I should eat the food that is already in my house, rather than buy new food. So throwing food away is hard for me.

I am also an English teacher and feel strongly that tackling books which are, at first blush, boring is good for me. After all, I really shouldn’t subsist on an intellectual diet of science fiction and P.D. James novels. So not finishing a book is hard for me, too.

Quitting anything is, I think, frowned upon in our culture. And correctly so: Patience and perseverance are fruits of the Spirit; we believers are called to endure hard things, in order to grow closer to Christ.

But that doesn’t mean quitting is always wrong.

I have been reading Wendell Berry lately, and he urges readers to consider the consequences of their actions, to operate in the real world and not in the ideal one. This is a more radical idea than it seems. Our culture, obsessed with freedom, is perpetually trying to divorce human actions from their natural consequences. The chief example is of course our culture’s attitude towards sex; as Berry points out, in the freewheeling sexual activity that characterizes our culture “the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of ‘freeing’ natural pleasure from natural consequence”. But this is only one example of how we insist on “ignoring the consequences” (1) of our actions, and doing whatever we please.

The thing is, while patience and perseverance are virtues, we must take care not to persevere in things which harm or destroy the soul.

I wonder sometimes whether American students need to practice a little judicial quitting. They take on ten or twenty or thirty hours of work a week, and a full class load, and a full social life, and then they are astonished when their schoolwork or health suffers.

I don’t want to judge my students. After all, many of them have to work in order to pay for school. But the fact remains that their decision to do so has consequences for the quality of their schoolwork, their family life, or their mental and physical health.

Likewise in my own life: There are places I need to stop ignoring the natural consequences of my actions, and practice a little judicial quitting. I like ending a stressful day by vegging on the Internet, but the truth is, this habit cuts into time that I could be spending reading. I like to worry (as the EMH said in Star Trek: Voyager, “It makes me feel better!”) but the fact remains that the natural consequence of worrying is spiritual and mental stress. Such are the things that I need to quit.

Quitting is not easy. And it is not enough to just quit; we must replace the thing we quit with something better, something with wholesome consequences. I put aside A Thread of Grace, and I picked up Laurusa Russian novel which promises to challenge my secular modernist tendencies.

But still, the first step is to quit.

(1) From “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” in What Are People For?

 

 

 

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