Last month, I got up on stage in front of 700 eager high school students and told them it’s okay to quit.
You could’ve heard crickets chirping outside of the gymnasium.
When the hosts of the three-day youth conference invited me to be the keynote speaker at the kick-off ceremony, they probably did so with the expectation that I’d share something a little more motivational—a little more anti-quitting.
We live in a culture where limits exist to be pushed, after all. From a young age, we’re told that the worst thing we could possibly be is a “quitter”. We gauge our success from the lengths we’ve pushed ourselves. We derive our worth from our level of persistence. We venerate people who make grandiose sacrifices to pursue their dreams while looking down upon the people who walk away. We love stories about heroes who never once quit despite the odds.
I was always one of those people. Until I realized how destructive those kinds of messages can be.
Quitting Isn’t Giving Up
In this CBC interview, several Catholics share about their journey of deciding whether to stay in their faith or leave it, especially in the wake of sexual abuse scandals within the church.
One of the interviewees made the difficult decision to leave her church. But she wasn’t sheepish about it. Instead, she made this powerful remark:
“Saying no is an active act. Walking away is an active act … Walking away from something also means you are walking toward something.”
This is a revolutionary thought in a world where we equate boundaries with weakness and quitting with failure. We don’t typically celebrate people who say “no” or quit—we demonize them. We resent them. We think of them as lesser.
But quitting doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
If, before take-off, your pilot announced that they were too tired or too ill to safely fly you to your destination, how would you respond? Would you yell at them and tell them to fly the plane anyhow? Or would you applaud their decision?
Saying no and walking away can be a very good, healthy, responsible thing.
Quitting isn’t inherently disempowering, either. Quitting isn’t necessarily passive. It doesn’t always choose us—WE choose to quit.
What’s more, we aren’t just engaging in the singular act of quitting. Choosing to quit may also mean we are choosing our wellbeing. We may be choosing our family. We may be choosing peace. We may be choosing a new, better future for ourselves.
When I walked away from my “dream job” in Cambodia five years ago, I felt like a failure. I was convinced that quitting made me a failure. I felt like I wasn’t a good enough humanitarian, I wasn’t a good enough Christian, I wasn’t a good enough person.
I did quit my job—but I didn’t give up on myself.
Quitting and giving up are two different things. Yes, I quit something that was ultimately harming me—but I didn’t give up on my journey. I didn’t give up on my passions, on my dreams, on my vocation. I simply chose a different path. And looking back on it, quitting was one of the most powerful, boldest, freeing things I’ve ever done.
Start Saying ‘No’
Telling 700 teenagers that it’s okay to quit was a bit risky. I probably made a few parents and teachers in the gym cringe a little. But in reflecting on my own high school experience, it was the message I wish somebody had told me as a teenager.
Is it every okay to have a limit to our endurance? To have boundaries with our emotional reserves, our compassion? To stop when we’ve gone beyond our threshold of pain tolerance? To lower the bar a little when we’ve hit our ultimate low?
Yes. Because the battlefield is no place for a human to permanently live.
We cannot escape adversity, but we can handle it in healthy ways. We cannot avoid conflict, challenges, and uncomfortable situations in our lives, but we can navigate them in ways that are good for our wellbeing.
That might start with adding words like “no” and “enough” to our vocabulary while banishing words like “perfect” and “selfish”.
It might be accepting—even embracing—our needs and limits instead of trying to outrun them.
It might be figuring out how to work hard without overworking.
Or balancing giving with receiving, producing with resting.
It might be reaching out to help others without losing ourselves in the process.
And learning how to show empathy while keeping our boundaries intact.
Maybe our limits aren’t there to tell us “you can’t” but there to tell us “you shouldn’t.”
Maybe our limits aren’t a deterrent, but a gift.
Maybe being strong means holding on. At other times, maybe it means letting go.