On Giving Up

I’ve noticed something about aging over the years.  An interesting thing about my profession (especially in my case, since I’ve been at the same department for 19 years) is that you’re linked to people for a long time, including people in your age cohort and people who are different ages as well.  So you get a long string of observations of a variety of people.  Mostly, you see their professional side, but you also gain some insight into their personal lives.  It’s something that I think everyone learns, but it’s often implicit, or at least unsaid:  after awhile, people give up.

Usually, when I meet someone my age (around 50), I can’t believe how fucking horrible they look.  Fat, haggard, dull.  Let’s face it, the typical 50 year old person looks like shit.  What do they do with their lives?  Work takes up some time, but apart from that, they eat crap, watch crap on tv, socialize with their peers (which is another form of eating crap).  Thinking, to the extent it’s done, is in the form of rationalization.  Here’s an article about a guy who ate red meat and smoked until he died at age 90, so I can abuse my body in good conscience.  A friend of mine says immigrants tend to be criminals, so I’m justified in resenting all these foreigners taking jobs from white people.  The Republican party says global warming is a hoax, so I can feel good about driving my gigantic pickup truck…  Better to watch some sports on the boob tube or have another Coors and not worry about things too much.

No need to get off my ass, because all my friends and neighbors look like crap too.  It’s sort of a form of collusion, I think.  We all eat dessert and have a few extra drinks to catch a buzz in the evening.  Sure, it’s getting harder to get up off the couch, as my belly’s getting big and my muscles soft, but everyone else is in the same boat.  Sure, the wife is kind of gross, but so am I, so we’ll just turn off the light and think about other people when we have sex.

Here’s the thing:  it’s inevitable.  Unless you die in an accident, you will give up.  Everyone does at some point.  And here’s the other thing:  it’s rational!   Taking care of yourself (what you eat, exercise, using your brain) is a form of investment, and an investment is only worth the cost if the payoff is big enough.  As you get older, you’re closer to death, so there’s an upper bound on the size of that payoff.  If you absolutely know you’re going to die tomorrow, it doesn’t make sense to forego dessert today.  As a good friend would put it, you might as well jerk off until your dick falls off.

And not only does our time horizon shrink as we get older (so the stream of payoffs from current investment is getting shorter), the investment itself becomes more costly.  Exercising is tougher when you’re older.  You’re more likely to get injured, and recovery times get longer, and sometimes it just doesn’t feel like it’s worth the effort to get off the couch.

What it boils down to, really, is mortality.  When we (or most of us, at least) are young, we don’t think about it.  As you age, you realize what’s happening:  life is, basically, like sinking in quicksand.  It’s slow at first and takes you by surprise, but there’s a point at which you realize that there’s nothing you can do.  You’re going under.  Once you realize you’re sinking in quicksand, you’re not going to start knitting a sweater.  About the best thing you can do is try not to thrash around, prolong the experience, and make it as pleasant as possible.  That’s what giving up is.

I respect people who try not to give up, and I’ve been one of them.  But those people are starting to remind me of the Black Knight battling the Knights of Ni:


A last comment:  the above ramblings stem not just from my observations of other people, but introspection.  I can sense that the costs of investment are increasing.  I know how my father looked when he died, and that’s ahead of me in roughly thirty years, which is not that long.  Should I spend my free time learning new mathematical techniques to open up new possibilities for my research, or should I listen to music, have a drink, and add an article to my blog?



9 thoughts on “On Giving Up

  1. You’ve defined and condensed the battle people face in life very well with this post. The inevitability of giving up and the rationale for doing so. There is almost a need for us to give up, not continually but at certain times in life to observe and get perspective. I’ve read this post perhaps a dozen time, each time with different thoughts – but one consistent pull I get is there must be a very dynamic balance between accepting the inevitable and giving up and versus the opposite view of being curious and inevitably pursuing life. A dynamic that evolves over a lifetime, and must be reconciled with as we grow older, otherwise, as you state so well – giving up becomes a chronic state. I imagine every day people weigh these two thoughts: give up or pursue. Wherever the mind focuses is the result.

    In viewing the population as a whole (% who give up versus the % who pursue), I would have envisioned the distribution as bell-shaped. But your quicksand analogy is fantastic, and as society begins to achieve a higher standard of living and technological advancement, we become lazy. In addition to the inevitableness of giving up, it also becomes easier to remain in such a state. The distribution curve I would guess is now skewed sharply to the left and continue to skew left at an accelerating rate.

    I agree with your conclusion that we all give up at some point. Whether we bounce back from this feeling, I believe is the real test of character. This time of ‘giving up’ allows for the contemplation of life. It is an important moment when the contemplation has ended: continue giving up, or find a new path to pursue. Aging does play a role as biologically, we simply break down. Breaking down to a point of accepting death is where I hope to find myself as hopefully it means I lived a full life. Just hope my time between now and then is a long one. For some, the pursuit of life will always keep such people adapting and trying to stay a step ahead (the thrill of the pursuit) – something I can see within your character as well. Alas, the battle is becoming more difficult as I think society pushes us away from such a noble pursuit as it poisons us with insipid TV shows, entertainment, processed foods and a strong dose of brainwashing.

    Great post and I’m going to borrow your thoughts :-)

    • Hi Dalo, nice points. Yes, I think we do fluctuate between giving up and pursuing, and after having an incredibly lazy Sunday morning, I hope I switch back to “pursue” mode pretty soon. And you’re right that it’s a test of character: the firm belief that you’re an unstoppable force that can push the immovable object of mortality, something like that… So far, it looks like we’ll all lose that contest, but there is some victory in battling to the end, giving up only as age, disease, and death slow us to a halt. In terms of hoops, if you play one on one against Steph Curry and score a couple baskets, that’s pretty fucking good.

  2. Pingback: The Life of Dachau ~ On Quality and Giving Up | China Sojourns Photography

  3. Excellent thoughts.. I do knit sweaters :-) also garden, paint and hike. I am a Gran and in my 6th decade… I worked for over 40 yrs and now its what I call my ME time… :-) Time for reflection, to learn new skills.. ( guitar ) and when I took early retirement too years ago.. I set out to live life to the fullest.. :-)
    Many thanks for your thoughts upon ageing.. I came via the link from Dalo’s post
    Have a beautiful Spring :-)

  4. A very interesting and thought provoking post. Of course, your definition of “giving up” is just what the Stoics advised when they told people to regularly think about their own death and indeed the death of their loved ones. That way we learn to appreciate every moment of our life, both our own and that of our nearest and dearest.

    “Should I spend my free time learning new mathematical techniques to open up new possibilities for my research, or should I listen to music, have a drink, and add an article to my blog?”

    Personally, I would take a Guinness and let “old age burn and rave at close of day”.

    • Hi Malcom, thanks. I don’t think the Stoic philosophers advocated a lifestyle of indulgence and laziness (e.g., in today’s society, lying on the couch, eating junk food, and drinking beer). Honestly, my undergrad philosophy classes are blurry at this point, but a quick look at Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism#Social_philosophy) supports my suspicion: sounds like the Stoics were in favor of a life of reason, which would free us from passion and bring us into alignment with nature. But maybe I misunderstand you, or you have some knowledge beyond the Wikipedia level, in which case it would be interesting to hear more.

  5. Casual Theorist, sorry to meet you on a misunderstanding. The Stoics certainly did not advocate a lifestyle of indulgence. Here is your definition of “giving up”:

    “About the best thing you can do is try not to thrash around, prolong the experience, and make it as pleasant as possible. That’s what giving up is.”

    As you yourself admit this is rational and so would be endorsed by the Stoics. However, not all of us think that lying on the couch, eating junk food and drinking beer is a way to make life “as pleasant as possible”, even with a short life expectancy. I have known a number of people who have been given under 12 months to live and they certainly didn’t act this way in their final months. So that is my rational answer. However emotionally I’m still with Dylan Thomas:

    “Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

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