Later this year, I’ll release a short book I’m calling “Title Pending: Things I Think About When I Make Stuff.” Between now and then, I’m posting previews of the book here at this blog and elsewhere, like the Art House America blog or On Pop Theology. Below is the second installation (the first is here), this one written in response to questions about when to quit working on a project. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
One of my best friends in college was a lacrosse stud. I was, on the other hand, a Philosophy Club nerd who didn’t know what lacrosse was. So, Carrie tried to explain her beloved sport to me. “It’s just the best,” she said. “It’s like… I don’t even know… it’s just so great! You should come see me play.”
I had to leave a meeting called “Existentialists Who Love Ice-Cream But Can’t Justify Their Feelings About It” early to catch the second half of the game, which had started just before I arrived. Nearing the field, I saw Carrie trotting to the sideline, waving to me and shouting, “You came!” She halted on the sideline and what at first seemed like a design flaw in Carrie’s uniform came into focus. A brown and red stain roughly the size of Rhode Island covered the upper-left half of her white, collared jersey.
I gasped, “What the hell happened to you?”
She tugged at her jersey and the mess covering her shoulder glistened, still wet.
“What can I say,” she called back, “I’m a bleeder.”
A few of her teammates chucked.
“I got smacked in the nose a few minutes ago. I’ll get her back.”
“How’s it going besides that?” I asked.
Carrie laughed, saying “Oh, man. We’re getting slaughtered. Hey, listen, I need to focus. I’m glad you’re here. Let’s talk afterward.”
Carrie took joy in playing lacrosse. And in that joy, she loved the work of it, even when that work came in a losing effort during which she was injured and bleeding. When I can’t see the work in front of me that way – when I lose joy in what I am doing – I have to seriously consider putting it down, maybe for a long season but more likely for good. Here is something true: the absence of joy is the only justifiable reason I’ve found for quitting a work.
I have set projects aside for a time in order to regain perspective or grow in the knowledge and skill required to do it well. I have unhappily slogged through days or weeks of project work, wondering if it would turn out at all. But in most of those scenarios, I still found meaning, hope and purpose in those works. I still felt connected to them. In short, I still found joy in the work. On the other hand, when a project has become little more than a chore and I’m only tinkering with it to get it out of the way, I probably need to put it away and probably for good.