When gymnast Simone Biles made the shocking decision to opt out of the women’s team final at the Tokyo Olympics, blowhard pundits (like the insufferable Piers Morgan) declared that there is “nothing heroic or brave about quitting.”
Simone explained that she needed to “focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being”. Even for narcissistic blowhards, Morgan’s response to her decision was out of line. Sometimes, walking away can be the wisest and most thoughtful choice we could possibly make. . . . .
Heart patients often learn firsthand about this decision-making challenge when we start practising how to say NO – for some of us, it may be the first time we’ve actually become good at saying it without feeling guilty. As I like to say, NO is a complete sentence. Many patients tell me how important it has become to say NO when they truly mean NO. Somehow, deciding what we want to do in life (and doing more of it) and what we no longer want to do in life (and doing far less of that) is a learned skill that’s apparently aided by a serious medical diagnosis.
There’s an old saying that goes something like this:
“One of the hardest parts of life is deciding whether to walk away or to try harder.”
In the past year, I’ve made a number of unrelated ‘walk away’ decisions that will not only permanently alter my future calendars, but were not as awful as I once may have feared. One decision was about leaving a longtime organization I’d held several leadership roles within, one was about a longtime community volunteer shift I loved, and one was about a longtime friendship. Until very recently, each had held an important place in my life and on my calendar for decades. DECADES!
So part of me has been waiting for some kind of delayed grief response to kick in ever since I walked away from all three.
Will I wake up one morning, impossibly sad because I’m no longer involved in what had been such major parts of my life all those years? Would I dread running into any of the people I’d walked away from? Would I look back with regret one day, perhaps blaming the chaos of a global pandemic for my decisions to quit?
So far, the answers are No, No, and NO! In each case, it was almost as if the skies had opened, a gleaming beam of light had struck my forehead, and I somehow just knew what I must do and say.
That last pandemic question (“COVID made me do it!”) may seem familiar – because many of us have already become used to saying NO to requests more frequently than ever before based on our COVID safety precautions – NO to holidays, flying, funerals, weddings, graduations, school, eating out and other crowded activities with unvaccinated strangers.
The last time I recall a life-altering “walking away” decision as significant as the ones during this past year was in the late ’90s when I decided to take a 2/3 pay cut to leave my long-established career in corporate public relations in order to accept a new P.R. job with the Salvation Army. (After years in P.R., I had lots of media friends in those days so our local newspaper at the time ran a cutesy headline that read: “Job Change Lands Carolyn In The Soup Kitchen!”)
My friends and family were gobsmacked at my surprise career change (mostly because, as a recovering catholic, I knew little if anything about the Sally Ann, and -oh yes!- there was that drastic pay cut, too) – but it all made perfect sense to me at the time. I’d been feeling increasingly restless at work, wondering what it would be like working on something socially meaningful for a change. (And let’s face it, the world of corporate P.R. is anything but that).
I immediately knew I was in the right place at the right time. I’d never worked for a charitable organization, for example, that started every staff meeting by singing a rousing hymn together! Can you imagine how good you’d feel after belting out four or five verses of All Things Bright & Beautiful with your work colleagues? Before then, I used to write human interest stories about corporate clients and their products. Now, I was writing about our street outreach programs feeding the homeless. I loved that work, and never for one moment regretted my decision to quit corporate life.
But most importantly, unlike “normal” people who couldn’t afford such a drastic pay cut in mid-career, walking away from my old expense account lifestyle was possible only because the year before, I’d sold my little cottage on an oversized lot and was able to buy a townhouse across town for cash. As one of my friends observed, with no more mortgage payments and a monthly strata fee of just $110.75: “Carolyn! You could get by with a paper route!” Without this specific reality, most P.R. folks like me could never have said YES to that job offer.
Elite athletes are not generally good role models to follow when considering whether to walk away or try harder – since their required level of focused ambition would rarely allow for the walking-away option – which makes Simone Bile’s Tokyo decision even more remarkable.
And speaking of athletes not walking away. . . in Part Two of my 3-part series on pain, I cite the incredible story of American sprinter Manteo Mitchell, who competed in the qualifying heat of the men’s 4×400 metre relay at the London 2012 Olympic games despite a broken leg! He said later that he actually felt and heard his left fibula bone break when he was at the 200-metre mark of his race, yet continued running so he could pass the baton to his waiting teammate Josh Mance – and thus help the U.S. relay team make the finals. Amazingly, despite “excruciating pain”, he still managed a split time of 46 seconds which track fans will recognize as pretty darned fast. After his race (and before being taken to the hospital for treatment), Manteo calmly explained to sports reporters asking why he didn’t quit running after he felt that break:
“I didn’t want to let the team down, so I just ran on it.”
Now there’s a guy for whom walking away was impossible. Literally!
Even the word “quitter” is emotionally loaded. If you’ve ever had a high school coach (on the playing field, the basketball court or the debating stage), you likely know the ominous warning: “Quitters never win, and winners never quit”?
For most of us, however, “quitters never win” simply reinforces the heroic myth that no matter what is happening in life, we must never walk away – no matter how intolerable circumstances may have become.
If you’re like me, you may have already experienced the heady sensation of profound relief after you’ve made a hard “stay or walk” decision, typically because of a strong gut feeling that your choice was indeed the right one. That feeling tells us: “You made the right move!”
I’ve also had the experience of feeling worse BEFORE having a difficult discussion, but relieved AFTER the actual discussion was over, a reminder that dreading the conversation can often feel far worse than the conversation (and the decision) itself turn out to be.
As Paula Davis (a former lawyer who quit her lawyering job for a better life) writes in her book, “Beating Burnout at Work”:
“Calling someone a ‘quitter’ is shaming. But quitting is a decision, not a character trait or flaw. Resilience is about responding to challenges in a flexible way.
“It can be incredibly brave to push through, and it can be incredibly brave to quit. . .”
Just ask Simone Biles. . .
Image: Mystic Art Design, Pixabay
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about women’s decision-making in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your nearest library or local bookshop or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the code HTWN to save 20% off the list price)..
Q: Has the pandemic made a difference in your own decisions to walk away instead of trying harder?