“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” ~Viktor Frankl
A few nights ago, I went to listen to one of my favorite authors speak in San Diego.
Anne Lamott was on tour promoting her latest book, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. She started the evening by telling us a common question she receives, which is this: How do we keep our spirits up, no matter what the circumstances? People were asking this, particularly in light of the current political context in the United States.
She answered plainly, “We never give up.”
Admittedly I thought, come on Anne. Is that all you’ve got?
This is a woman I’ve been reading and admiring for nearly 15 years. She’s one of few spiritual authors that have made me feel safe throughout my ever-messy faith journey. She’s real, she’s funny, she’s smart, and she’s all grace. Because of that fondness, I was expecting a little more bang for my buck.
Of course, she expanded on her advice about never giving up. And in the end, she did in fact cause me to laugh, and ooo and ahh, and say things quietly like, “Damn, speak that truth, woman.” I have also since realized how powerful those simple, cliché words are: never give up.
But what does *never giving up* actually look like?
Here’s what is DOES NOT look like:
When you have a rough morning because one of your students was hurtful to you, and you’re losing your mind trying to figure out what to do to get yourself out of your shit situation, crying as you drive home from the grocery store, so you decide to call it a day and lay back in bed and turn Netflix on at 12pm. And stay there until 6am the next day.
No, friends, that’s not a picture of not giving up. On the contrary, that’s a pretty great picture of giving up. Yes, there is room for feeling things and being gentle with oneself. But there is always something to be done to cope with the hard stuff, no matter how small.
A South Sudanese friend once said something to me that changed my life.
We were chatting online a few weeks after the war started in 2013. I was in Nairobi, Kenya at the time, and he was in Juba — the capital of South Sudan — with his family. At the time, it wasn’t clear there was actually a war yet, it was so fresh.
What we knew was that “clashes” had broken out between military/political personnel in Juba, which quickly spread through the city. People were being murdered based on tribal affiliation — gathered by the hundreds and gunned down in buildings where they had been stuffed, or found walking down the street and shot on the spot.
There was constant gunfire, like when popcorn really gets popping. There were other weapons being fired throughout the city. People either did their best to hide or run for their lives. The economy essentially collapsed in the matter of a week.
My friend James and his family stayed in their home compound. They were not associated with either warring, tribal party so they were relatively safe, but the situation was obviously frightening and heartbreaking for everyone.
When I could finally reach him online, I asked if he and his family were ok. I asked him what they were doing to cope.
He told me they were grieving and praying. Then he told me something I’ll never forget. He told me they kept making jokes, and they “kept smiling despite the circumstances” — his exact words.
I didn’t realize at the time how profound that one simple statement was, and how it would change me as a person.
He wasn’t the only friend I made in East Africa who challenged me in this way either. Of the things I learned during my time there, I may have learned the most about resilience. I met plenty of people there who showed me, for example, that sometimes *not giving up* sounds like laughter. Sometimes not giving up looks like a smile.
Sometimes not giving up looks like choosing to go for a walk in the sunshine instead of curling up in bed after a difficult morning. Sometimes not giving up looks like calling your best friend and crying until you laugh. Sometimes not giving up looks like writing through it.
Sometimes not giving up looks like turning the music on and letting it move your soul to bodily expression. Next time a student is hurtful and I’m going crazy trying to figure out my life, I hope I can at least choose to dance.
What is it for you?
How do you cope with the hard stuff?
How do you *never give up* no matter what the circumstances?