Tuesday, January 16, 2024

New Year’s Resignation


Is it too late to suggest a New Year’s Resolution? I’m hoping this is timed just right: those who started too early have already given up on their original Resolutions and need replacements, and those who haven’t yet made theirs are desperate for inspiration. Read on for my earnest recommendation. I’ll describe what I’m even talking about; give a few examples; explain why people disdain the art of resignation and what you can do about it; and touch on why we need it now more than ever.

Tune your resignation engine

Huh? Resignation engine? Look, there’s no really easy way to put this, but I propose that as this year’s Resolution we strive to improve our capacity for resignation. On the face of it, this might sound like “just give up,” which isn’t exactly inspirational or aspirational. But I’m not talking about the sense of resigning from a job or office; I mean the other definition, “unresisting acceptance of something as inescapable; submission” (American Heritage Dictionary, Fifth Edition).

Don’t give me that look. I know this still sounds pretty defeatist but bear with me. Unresisting acceptance sounds weak, largely due to the common phrase “resigned to his fate.” But resignation doesn’t have to involve fatalism. When you apply it instead to a process, instead of to an expected outcome, it can become a superpower.

I’ve blogged in these pages before (here!) about the perils of submitting to a goals-oriented culture that overemphasizes getting results, as opposed to simply doing things well for their own sake. Consider the following notion, which I stumbled across in a New York Times article on parenting: “A Dutch father of three told me about his Buddhist-inspired approach: total commitment to the process, total equanimity about the outcome.” I love this and think it can apply to a variety of human endeavors. If we focus on a process we know is worthwhile, we become more resilient when it doesn’t produce the outcome we’d hoped for.

So the behavior I’m really encouraging is to strive to better at resigning ourselves to the difficulty of a process, not to any specific fate (i.e., outcome). How this capability benefits us is complicated, so I will give an example.

Sunburst criterium, 1986

A criterium is a multi-lap bicycle race on city streets, usually lasting 90 minutes or less. On this occasion, it was like 100 degrees out, no exaggeration. I was a decent racer, generally able to finish in the top ten; in Colorado in those days we usually had at least fifty riders in every race and a lot of talent. What made things particularly intimidating was the 7-Eleven junior team: not only were these the fastest riders in the state, but they had each other—no other team could really stand up to them. To make matters worse, when I got to the Sunburst criterium I found out the entire junior national team was there—like five or six more top guys. To go suffer in the heat against all these big shots was pretty demoralizing.

I pretended to be casual about it, but I could be kind of a head case in those days, not above defeatist thinking, and it almost seemed pointless to go destroy myself out there with little chance, it seemed, of a top ten. But even in those days I had a talent for resignation, or at least I’d developed some capability in that realm, because I resolved to just get out there and hang with the pack for as long as I could, hopefully the entire race. I was well aware that if I got dropped I’d never catch back up, and would probably be lapped, and pulled from the race by the referee, which would be frankly humiliating, but what else could I do?

Sure enough, the pace was brutal. Criteriums never start out mellow like a long road race, and between the 7-Eleven riders (or “Slurpees” as they were known) and the junior national team, a lot of egos were on exhibit. I was in the back of the pack, which in theory would give me the best draft (i.e., break from the wind), but when accelerations are constant and little gaps open up, the inefficiency grows as you get farther back in the group—you’re whipped around like the end of a long tail, working your ass off just to remain in contact. It’s more efficient to move up toward the front, but everyone has that idea, so it’s a constant struggle. I was dying the whole time but just hung in as though I had a chance.

Remember my rhetorical question from earlier—“what else could I do?” Well, there’s actually an answer: I could have dropped out, and after all nobody would fault me too much for that, because as I said it was like 100 degrees out. And before too long, a rider did drop out, and then another, and as the race went on the pack continued to thin out. Every rider that bailed—especially when it was a Slurpee or a national team member—kind of gave others tacit permission to do the same. I myself never considered doing so: I was resigned to suffering because I always suffered, and rote suffering seemed like the entire point of the sport. So I just hung in, and with two or three laps to go the damnedest thing happened: I realized I no longer felt that bad, and I was finally able to move up through the pack. There were fewer riders in it, after all, and most of them were pretty gassed. With a lap to go I’d made it into the top ten, and though we weren’t able to reel in a breakaway of one or two riders, I did a good sprint at the end and took fourth in the race—a really solid finish for me, especially with the junior national team there.

So what’s the takeaway? It’s this: for me, the race went well because I was resigned to suffering but not to defeat. I could have told myself I couldn’t get a top ten and been resigned to that, which would have been a mistake … I never would have made my move at the end. Or, I could have decided I had no chance and dropped out like so many other guys. But I didn’t assume, despite my misgivings, that I was simply doomed. Instead, I was resigned to wretchedly enduring the speed and the heat, and continued as though I had no choice. The reasons I ended up placing high were nothing I’d predicted : 1) it turns out I handle the heat better than a lot of guys (which I’d never realized until that day), and 2) the junior national team had come from all over the country and probably most or all of them weren’t acclimated to the thin air at Denver’s elevation, 5,400 feet, and thus were at a disadvantage (which I didn’t put together until today, thinking back on this almost forty years later). My resignation to just suffer, in this case, was essentially the opposite of fatalism. My willingness to just see what might happen, versus telling myself a clever story about how it would probably turn out, was the right approach. When we’re looking for a reason to persevere in the face of certain failure, we need to remember that failure is never certain.

Resignation as a habit

What I described above is an instance, essentially, of tenacity: I kept going instead of just quitting. There’s obviously an athletic component to this, which is why some people are able to continue a rigorous physical activity when others cannot, but remember: I was not one of the most talented riders in that race. Tenacity often comes down to mindset, and mindset in turn comes down to grit: the kind of grit that can be earned, the hard way, even in the absence of great talent. I did a good many pointlessly hard rides in my teens; for example, a 130-mile excursion over Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous highway in the U.S. at over 12,0000 feet elevation. (It was an out-and-back ride and would have been easy to bail on, but I didn’t.) Every time we embrace resignation and continue striving under brutal duress, we toughen ourselves, in mind and body, and thereby increase our confidence that we can endure next time as well. This gives us the ability to be resigned in advance next time we’re considering a bold undertaking.

This is an important point: there are two forms of being resigned to a process. There’s the type in the moment, which I’ve described before (here!), which I call “climbing stupid.” Instead of asking yourself, on a brutal cycling climb, “can I make it?” you pretend that you literally have no choice, and approach the task one pedal stroke at a time, like a robot. Acknowledging that you could quit is the first step in doing so, and you must not take it. The other type of resignation is when you know something is going to be absolutely brutal, and that you could opt out of committing to it, but instead you recall all the times you persevered, and the grit you know you have, and thus you can resolve to commit, in advance, to something that you know will be really difficult and that will draw on all your powers of in-the-moment resignation.

Here’s an example. As documented extensively in these pages, I did a weeklong cycling tour in the French Alps last summer, which brought me right to the very edge of my capability as a cyclist. The penultimate day completely kicked my ass: not only the fearsome Col du Galibier, which was the devil I knew (having spectacularly detonated on it twenty years before) but also the Col du Granon, the devil I met that day and hope never to encounter again. I finished all four climbs that day through the first type of resignation: climbing stupid. I was just completely knackered after that, but had one more day to go, with three more brutal climbs. During dinner, the tour director came around to see who still wanted to do the full route (the so-called “Epic A”) the next day, vs. dropping down to a more merciful route (the Epic B). Among the tour groups, the week had started with fifteen Epic A riders but had dwindled down to five, and of those five I was probably the most shattered. The director seemed to be addressing me personally when he cautioned our group that the forecast was for drizzle, if not outright rain, the full day. I hate the cold and the wet; as described here I normally eschew wet weather riding altogether. I was sorely tempted to drop down to the B group—after all, hadn’t I suffered enough?—but when my friends promised to hang back with me on the first two climbs, I reconsidered. Calling on my long history of somehow enduring such things, and boosted by my friends’ vote of confidence in me, I resigned myself—in advance—to doing the full route. In the event, the weather improved dramatically during that final day, and the second giant climb, the Col de Sarenne, ended up being the most beautiful of the entire week.

(Did I pay dearly for my boldness? Of course I did. As described here, the final climb of that final day, the legendary Alpe d’Huez, caused me to draw deeply on my entire lifetime reservoir of resignation to finally make the summit, after which I was just wrecked. It was an absolutely brutal day on the bike, which is of course the whole point and what cements the memory as one of my fondest. I mean, duh.)

Obstacles to resignation

If resignation came easily to us, of course I wouldn’t be recommending it as a New Year’s Resolution … I wouldn’t need to. But it doesn’t come easily. Why not? For one thing, because it’s humbling. Sure, describing some heroic struggle in the Alps doesn’t paint it in such a poor light, but so often resignation is more along the lines of being on hold for 45 minutes with an airline because your flight got canceled. It’s so tempting to declare, “I don’t have time for this shit!” and pretend you can seek some other course of action, usually involving anger and aggression.

I’m not trying to imply that resignation is just another word for patience, because they’re not exactly the same. An impatient person can be appropriately resigned if it’s the only way forward. Moreover, there’s a specific impediment to resignation we don’t see with patience: the perception that some principle is being violated, that one shouldn’t have to be resigned to a difficult or tedious process. “Why should I have to be on hold with the airline? I didn’t cancel my flight!” Or, “Why should I have to do tedious, painful physical therapy twice a day? I didn’t cut off a cyclist with my car!” Of course, these strong feelings of principle are pointless. Do you want to avoid changing planes in Houston at 3 a.m.? Do you want to walk normally again? Well then … resign yourself.

My favorite example of resignation being challenged in this way involves parenthood.  When my older daughter was just a toddler, I often had to be on watch duty, which (after an initial period of fascination, wonder, and pride at her dinking with her toys) became incredibly dull and repetitive. My wife and I were determined not to make TV or other electronic entertainment into a babysitter, which made the job even harder. I would sit down with a novel and try to read while keeping an eye on my kid, but every ten seconds she would wander out of sight, or figure out some way to introduce danger into her supposedly childproof environment, or get bored and start crying, or fill her diaper, and I’d have to put my book down, get up, and intervene. Given how sleep-deprived I was, this became annoying as hell. It was often tempting to try to solve the problem by swift, decisive action, such as picking up my daughter and giving her a good shake. (Just kidding, making sure you’re still awake.) I found this work detail incredibly frustrating until I figured out the root problem: I simply wasn’t resigned to the reality of it. I was supposing I could multi-task and get some reading done, but this was pure fiction. Once I became committed to doing just this one thing—watching my kid—it got a lot easier. By focusing on her, I could renew the anthropological study of what she was doing, and/or lie on my back on the floor and let her crawl over me, or otherwise engage with her, and I generally enjoyed it. This is because I was resigned to the process. Again, it wouldn’t be correct to say I was resigned to my fate, because I wasn’t in fact fated to be bored. That had seemed like the likely outcome, but in the event my baby turned out to be far cuter and more fun than any other baby who ever lived (as far as you know) so the single-threaded supervision wasn’t as bad as I’d assumed it would be. Just like the weather on the Col de Sarenne, or my competition in the Sunburst Criterium.

Extending resignation

Mastery of the art of resignation lends itself to more than just enduring a tough or tedious situation. It can help you be more philosophical when life doesn’t go the way you want it to. For example, my younger daughter was home from college for the winter break, and my wife and I faced an all too familiar feeling of rejection when she didn’t spend much time with us. She wanted to be off with her friends, or shutting herself away in her room. But when we bothered to think about it, the idea that she’d want to hang out a lot with a couple of 50-somethings was totally unrealistic. We asked ourselves, what were we like at age twenty? Were we any different? Of course not. Once we resigned ourselves to not seeing that much of our daughter, we no longer felt disappointed or offended, and when she did cook a meal with us, or read aloud to us, or go with us on a hike, that seemed more like a gift than some contract being met.

So it is with ageing. Does my wife tolerate my receding hairline and all the groaning I do when I embark on some really difficult physical task like getting up from the sofa? She does. If I point-blank ask her if it’s okay that most of my hair is now in my nostrils and ears, she laughs with me instead of at me (I think). She has wisely accepted, as have I, that despite what the Anti-Ageing Industrial Complex keeps telling us, getting old and wrinkled and stiff is inevitable, and watching each other’s inexorable decline is, in fact, what we signed up for when we married. So as we age, I’d say we need the capacity for resignation more than ever. If you agree, why not make it your New Year’s Resolution to tune your resignation engine? Starting now? Don’t worry, you have what it takes … if you’ve made it to the end of this post, I can vouch for your grit and tenacity. ;-)

Further reading

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