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.

The big question is: Why do we develop attachments at all? As Aldous Huxley said, most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. We develop attachments and we don’t even know it. Only when we are threatened by the lack or the loss of them, do we realize how much we are attached to them. If we lose our sight, for instance, some of us would probably consider suicide, but if we think objectively about many blind people enjoying their lives, it seems silly to even be depressed about being blind. Also, why don’t animals have the same problem? A dog could lose its leg, and go on living just as happily as before. Such a dog would obviously struggle and suffer the inconvenience, but its spirit would not be affected by it. Some animals like elephants apparently exhibit the signs of depression from the loss of friends and relatives, but many animals leave their own kids behind almost as soon as they are born, and never see them again. They seem to have no attachments, and live strictly in the present moment.

This leads me to believe that there is an evolutionary reason for our tendencies to develop attachments. The more evolved the species are, the more tendencies for attachments they seem to exhibit. I suppose it is quite obvious in one sense. The more attached to one’s own life, the stronger one’s desire to survive. Natural selection, in this way, perhaps favored those humans with stronger egos. Strong egos clash and create conflicts, but these clashes of ideas and egos force better ideas to float to the top. The ideas themselves go through the process of natural selection. Without egos and attachments, this system would not work, and we as a species would be less equipped to survive.

Zen Buddhism is a process of detachment. It is so concerned with attachment that, one is discouraged from being attached to the very idea of detachment, and I can see why; because attachment actually has positive, useful functions. In this sense, Zen is not a process of detachment, but simply an understanding of what attachment is.

As I grow older and face various physical deteriorations, I’m forced to be in peace with the idea of giving up certain things in life. I could possibly refuse to accept the idea of giving up, and try running 10 miles every morning or spend hours in gym, but if my motivation for keeping up my physical strength is to be in denial, then what I’m really giving up is to have the courage to face reality. Again, this attachment to physical strength will eventually extinguish any enjoyment I might get out of exercising.

Having a child is a double-edged sword where it could expedite this process of detachment, or encourage greater attachment to one’s own ego. If you are to see your own child as an extension of your own ego, you are inclined to mold him into something you want. If you succeed at it, your child strengthens your attachment to your own ego. On the other hand, if you see your child as another person with his own ego, he provides plenty of opportunities to make your own ego objectively observable. In other words, your child becomes a useful tool for you to detach yourself from your own ego.

When you say, “I sacrifice myself for my kid,” what you really mean by it is that you are willing to make compromises between what your ego wants and what your kid’s ego wants. In an ideal world, you want your own ego to coincide with that of your kid (because he is merely an extension of your own ego.) If you had no such expectation, there would be no “sacrifice”, because the difference would be exactly what you would want in order to allow you to achieve the detachment from your own ego.

If my observations are correct, detachment allows us to enjoy life in its uncontaminated form, but attachment allows us to achieve better chances of survival as a species. It appears that the forces of evolution are acting against our desire to enjoy life. Ironic, it might seem, but life is all about the interaction of two opposing forces.