Essay 7: A Brief History of Giving Up
In Moscow, there are traffic jams that last for seven hours. Imagine. Everyone sitting in their cars and just pressing on their hooters with both hands. They are long past the point of worrying about being late. Time and the idea of appointments take on an elastic quality within the confines of their vehicles. They lift their legs up and launch their seats back so that their feet are on the hooters as well. It doesn’t produce much extra noise, but they find that it provides a necessary vent to their feelings. After some hours, the people of the Moscow traffic jams fall asleep with their face on the hooters. Their sleep is brief and restless. They dream of driving large cars down empty highways with the sun in their eyes and their favourite song on the radio. The song is Gold Dust Woman.
They wake up and nothing has changed, except that snow now covers their windscreens. It is too thick to remove with just the windscreen wipers, and so the people of the Moscow traffic jams must get out of their cars and clear it away with their hands. They have no gloves. Back in the car, and back on the hooter. They turn the heaters on full blast, so that their tears unthaw on their cheeks. They wait.
Obviously, this is a test. There are many trials of this nature, all of which fall under the heading “Character Building”. To work out whether you are being given a test of character, you must answer these questions.
- Is it hard?
- Do I hate it?
- Is it important?
If the answer to all three is “yes”, then what you have on your hands is a Test. Think of the citizens of Moscow, alone in their cars. They hate it so much, they have little indents on their foreheads from pressing on the hooter so much, and yet they continue, drawing on the apparently inexhaustible resource that is the Russian Nobility of Spirit. Seven hours. This seems almost unsurpassably heroic to me. I think about it all the time, because it is a test that I know I would fail. When I want to feel bad about myself, I Google “worst traffic jams”, and think about how long I would last. I think about the Wikipedia entry for “China National 110 traffic jam”:
“The traffic jam slowed down thousands of vehicles for more than 100 kilometres (60 mi) and lasted for more than ten days. Many drivers were able to move their vehicles only 1 km (0.6 mi) per day, and some drivers reported being stuck in the traffic jam for five days.”
The conclusion I am forced to draw is that every one of these drivers is made of stronger stuff than I am. Five days. I would last three or four hours, tops, before I sold my car to a pedestrian. I imagine that in every terrible traffic jam, a cruel tribe of roving pedestrians appears on the side of the road, ready to take advantage of the human desire to give up. If not, an opportunity is being missed. Cars could be bought for peanuts. This is just one of my many business ideas.
Capitulation comes easily to me. I have no grit. I gave up piano lessons and ballet and yoga. I gave up on living in London. I ditched two different novels I tried to write. One was about some contemporary girls, and the other was about some girls of a previous generation. They were both about me. I gave up quitting smoking, as well as every attempt to cut a food group out of my diet. I gave up on flossing, as well as Infinite Jest, Moby Dick, and Midnight’s Children. All of Proust, Flaubert, Knuasgaard, Henry James, Murakami, Heller, Mailer, Naipaul, Lessing, DeLillo, Plath, Grass, and Atwood. Any book written for adults where a person turns green or into a mermaid. Any novel where a cat can talk. Any novel where a central character likes to read too much. Novels in which central characters have jobs which I consider to be unreasonable, such as hand models, undertakers, looking after whales, zookeepers in general, ghosts, huntsmen, woodsmen, salesmen, swordsmen, lion tamers, anything which seems too futuristic, astronauts, wizards, pornographers, lecturers in university departments invented in order to make a point about the current state of academia, inventors, clerks in subterranean government offices, and occupations invented in order to make a point about this terrible world. I gave up on them all.
I am good at giving up. I abandoned my attempts to drive a manual car in the middle of a lesson. It was my brother and I, on a dirt road near the sea. We drove up and down, up and down, and I developed a method of stalling the car that made it sound like a person weeping. “I can’t do this,” I said. “I hate it.” Up and down, up and down, confounded by my inability to gauge when the gears should be shifted. Don’t tell me this is easy.
My brother was determined to teach me. He decided that things had gone far enough. I had been going for driving lessons for two months with the most capable and pragmatic driving instructor in the world, the evil Hester. That woman broke herself in half trying to teach me how to indicate and change gears at the same time. She called every driver on the road “Auntie” and “Uncle”, and kept up a more or less constant wail of “SORRY UNCLE” as I stalled at yet another green light. She was amazingly considerate of the actions and feelings of all other drivers. Again and again, she impressed upon me the importance of noticing the aunties and uncles of the road. She was an excellent teacher, and yet I defeated her. I grimly laid waste to all her cherished and effective techniques. I am confident in saying that she wished I was dead. If Hester could not do it, then no one could, and I tried to communicate this to my brother. He didn’t want to hear it.
He just said, “Rose, it’s very easy. You can definitely do this.” His tone was soothing and peaceful, but I could hear the determination leaking out. It was obvious to me that he’d decided he would do whatever it took to teach me, up and down, up and down, until I reminded him of a normal driver. I began to think of ways to escape. I said, “If you don’t stop teaching me how to drive, I’ll never speak to you again.” He said, “Oh please, this will be fun. Imagine the freedom you’ll feel.” He said, “Just another ten, twenty minutes, half an hour, and then we’ll stop.” This was after I had stalled six times in a row and demonstrated a variety of other deficiencies.
Hester was all too familiar with these problems. She could have told my brother that they were intractable, but I suppose he needed to see it for himself. The car was starting to sound like a distressed horse. This might be where I got the idea from. A long time ago, my friend Caitie had told me that if you are riding a horse on a beach, and the horse is galloping too fast, then you just turn it up towards the dunes. ‘The horse has to stop then,” she said. She had learned this through bitter experience. It had seemed at the time like the kind of advice that would at some stage be useful. It was. I started the car, drove for a hundred metres, and then turned sharply up into a sand bank on the side of the road. “The car has to stop now,” I thought. It did. I climbed triumphantly out of the car and slammed the door. “This lesson is over,” I said. “This is the last time I get behind the wheel of a manual car.” I was awash with relief for the rest of the day. Every time I thought about it, a song played in my heart. The song was Gold Dust Woman.
I have all sorts of aversions, but the only thing I really hate is trying. I am always answering a heartfelt “yes” to the first two questions (“Is it hard?” and “Do I hate it?”), and then wavering on number three (“Is it important?’). I believe that number three can be negotiated. Not always, of course. It is mostly the case that you just have to do things, whether or not you feel like it. It is important to go to work, and eat your boring dinner, and maintain a grip on your immediate environment. These things won’t take no for an answer.
This only enhances the pleasure of giving up when the moment allows for it. Put the boring book down. Stop trying to learn French. Remember that you can’t surf. Smoke. Drive an automatic forever and don’t feel embarrassed. Give up.