The art of giving up

One winter night, one of the few Japanese friends I had in my early 20s was playing a guitar at his company Christmas party. He was an architect and was about 10 years older than I was. Before he decided to study architecture, he was making a living as a guitarist in Japan. This was not the first time I heard him play, but I was still stunned by how good he was. After his performance, I told him that it was a shame that he was no longer pursuing his musical career. He then shared with me his recent realization that life is a process of giving up. At the time, I didn’t think much of what he said. I think I remembered it only because of its unusual reversal of the popularly held beliefs. Especially on this land of dreams, “giving up” is seen almost as sacrilegious. Everyone’s livelihood seems to precariously hinge on holding big, albeit distant dreams. For some people, the more dreams, the better. So, what did my friend mean when he said that life is a process of giving up?

Now, I not only understand it, but also believe it myself. Another way of saying the same thing is that life is a process of letting go of your own ego, or letting go of your attachments. Contrary to what one might assume from the connotations of the expression “giving up”, this is done in order to enjoy life more. For instance, you cannot enjoy alcohol if you are attached (or addicted) to it. Enjoyment of anything requires a certain distance. When the idea of self (ego) is attached to the object of enjoyment, you lose the ability to see it for what it is. I believe this is partly responsible for the phenomenon called “writer’s block”, in which the identity “writer” is attached to one’s ego so much that the fear of losing that identity becomes greater than the enthusiasm for writing. It is by giving up the idea of becoming a “writer” that one is able to be a writer and enjoy being one. This is difficult to do especially in a country where one’s existence is defined by one’s profession. The fear of not living up to the reputation of the greatest American writer is probably what killed the writer in Truman Capote, for instance.

“Giving up,” in this sense, isn’t the same as quitting. My friend was still playing guitar; he just wasn’t pursuing it professionally. Most alcoholics cannot enjoy alcohol in moderation; they have to quit entirely. In the same way, when you are attached to something, your choices are either to quit altogether or to depend on it for life. Either way, it is not enjoyable. It is also common to see aspiring artists, musicians, and actors entirely drop their activities once they come to a conclusion that they are not going to make it. At that point, it becomes clear that the driving force behind their creative pursuits was not their enthusiasm or passion, but their attachment to the idea of becoming someone. Or, it is also possible that whatever enthusiasm they had was overwhelmed by their fear of failure. Ironically, I believe that, if you can give up the idea of “making it,” you would have a better chance of actually making it. If you were not under pressure from your own expectations, you would enjoy your activities more, and therefore produce better work.

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