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Giving In When It’s The Only Thing You Can Do

If you are a sports fan, you have likely heard the late Jim Valvano’s speech at the 1993 Espy Awards. Valvano had terminal cancer. He died six weeks after giving his speech at the Espy’s. Valvano started The V Foundation for Cancer Research. Its motto is “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” The idea behind this motto is that life is always to be valued above death, that we must keep fighting until the very end, that we must never give in or give up. This sort of thinking is on prominent display on social media and in countless books; a sentiment I can’t embrace.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, had this to say about the positive thinking culture that permeates our society:

In other words, it [positive thinking] requires deliberate self-deception, including a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and ‘negative’ thoughts. The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts.

Speaking of having breast cancer, Ehrenreich wrote:

Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.

Read your local newspaper’s obituaries, and you will find references to the dead battling, fighting, and persevering to the end. We know differently. Most people die with a whimper; the life sucked out of them by the diseases that afflict the human race.

I am dying. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but I am nearing the end of my life. Well-wishers tell me to keep fighting. Preachers of positive thinking tell me that I need to think good thoughts. It seems that people want me to deny reality and construct a false narrative, one of rainbows, puppy dogs, and happiness. People mean well, but as I become sicker, I find their cheerful, syrupy words unhelpful. In fact, I often find their words irritating and depressing. I find myself thinking, “can’t you see me?” Perhaps they can’t bear the thought of me dying. They can’t imagine their world without me. And so, the mass delusion continues.

Even if I were a healthy sixty-four, I am still nearing the time when I join Toto over the rainbow. If I lived to be 70, my life is 91% over; if I live to 80, 80% of my life is in the rearview mirror. I am not, however, healthy, and I never will be. I see no magical treatment on the horizon, no drug that cures me of what ails me. All my doctors can do is treat my symptoms and try to reduce my pain. Yesterday, I saw my primary care doctor. I had an EKG, a chest X-ray, and blood work. I will likely have a CT scan soon.

Four months ago, I started having pain in my left side. Typically, when I have such pains, I think “fibromyalgia.” However, such pains typically ebb and flow. This excruciating pain has, instead, spread to the middle of my back and under my arm. I spend most of my waking hours on the couch, trying to lie just right to lessen the pain. Pain medications are not effective with this pain, so I endure.

As you may know, I was diagnosed with gastroparesis — an incurable disease — earlier this year. I have lost 115 pounds, have little appetite, and frequent bouts of vomiting. I take medications that “help” to some degree with the symptoms, but there’s no cure for gastroparesis, so this is my life.

And then there’s Uncle Arthur — osteoarthritis. The X-rays I had done yesterday showed more arthritis in the spine. I am beginning to wonder if it would be simpler to list the places where I DON’T have arthritis.

I write this post, not to solicit sympathy, but to make a point about why it is okay to give in when it is all you can do. A week or so ago, we went to Whole Foods in Toledo. As I haltingly walked in the door, I veered to the left, away from Polly to the motorized carts. Polly watched as I stood there for what seemed the longest time. She came over to me and asked, “what are you doing?” I replied, “I am thinking about using a cart.” You see, I have never used a motorized cart or my wheelchair in a store. Whether due to pride or some sort of warrior complex, I refuse to use a cart.

I know that the no-cart/no-wheelchair days are over. No amount of positive mental thinking will change the fact that my body is broken beyond repair. IF I want to go to the store with Polly, I must use a cart. The battle, then, is psychological, not physical. I must embrace life as it is. I must be willing to give in.

I choose to embrace my life as it is, not how I might want it to be or how others want it to be. I choose to be a realist and a pragmatist. Bruce, this post is so damn depressing. Yep, and so is life. All I know to do is accept what comes my way. Unlike Jim Valvano, I have come to see that it is okay to give in; that I am not weak or a failure if I do so. In the end, Valvano and I will end up in the same place.


Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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  1. Avatar

    Thank you for your openness. I’m very sorry to hear about your health whenever you mention it. I had to stop thinking too hard about my 26 yr old son’s moderately severe fibro, or I will get sad and cry. But crying and praying don’t help.

    My husband is struggling with his reality of his health. And he is sure if he watches enough Youtube videos he will find the thing that will fix him. I don’t have any hope for my son or myself, and I’m pretty sure husband is going to keep having physical issues, even with a little improvement. So I prefer reality, so I can order my life on it. I am too sick to work a part-time job, unless it was very part-time and I could work only if I wanted to…so not realistic.

    I can’t even say I hope you get better, as it doesn’t seem to be the way things are going. I will continue to hope that you find an equilibrium where you can do some of the things you love and be with the people you love, and not suffer too much. <3

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    Karuna Gal

    Bruce, this is not depressing. This is a realistic assessment of your life as it is now. No rose-colored glasses or denial or lamenting from you. And you,in spite of illness and pain, keep writing this blog, helping many people in the process. Your situation reminds me, in a way, of Beethoven’s. He endured the lost of his hearing, depression and illness and soldiered on, writing his great music that we still listen to and love. You are a hero like him – bravo!

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    Dear Bruce, thanks for your refreshing honesty and realism.

    One of my relatives is experiencing very serious health issues right now. We nearly lost them at one point though they have regained their consciousness since. I sincerely wish that they hadn’t since this would probably mean even more suffering for them in the future.

    But my mom keeps asking me to pray for them and thinks that it would be unbecoming for my relative not to trust in God after this supposed “miracle” (i.e. them regaining consciousness due to medical care). I know that she’s got good intentions, but such wishful “positive-thinking”, especially when coupled with religion, can be very very unhelpful at times.

    I sincerely hope that, in the middle of all the mess, you can still enjoy your favourite things and the company of your wonderful family.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    Good writing always encourages me, Bruce Almighty: ‘She’s a great life if you don’t weaken,’ comes to mind and Rilke’s quote to the young writer too, not the most quoted part that encourages patience but a follow-up note: “Your doubt may become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become critical. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perplexed and embarrassed perhaps, or perhaps rebellious. But don’t give in, insist on arguments and act this way, watchful and consistent, every single time, and the day will arrive when from a destroyer it will become one of your best workers — perhaps the cleverest of all that are building at your life.”
    So as I read your words, Bruce, I hear a man not giving in but accepting what is… What is a life if not the ups and the down-going too. I feel troubled that you must endure so much somatic pain but remain very grateful for your open, honest heart and your willingness to face the blank page in the midst of it.

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    We spend our whole lives avoiding and denying the reality of suffering we actually endure. It is the human condition. The best any of us can hope for is to not suffer alone. Which is the same as saying that the best any of us can hope for is not to live alone.

    This may sound trite, Bruce, but I am very glad you have Polly at your side. It’s a demonstration of her love for you, and I know you love her back for it.

    Like you, I have been lectured and badgered by so many preacher-types that deny suffering has any place in our lives, and blame me for my own… you’ve heard it all. My biggest retort to them all is, well, to shut up and continue to live in the middle of it. Lao Tzu was helpful to me in this:

    He who understands others is wise,
    He who understand himself is enlightened.
    He who masters others has strength,
    He who masters himself is strong.
    To recognize enough is to be rich.
    He who acts forcefully has ambition.
    He who stays where he is endures.
    He who dies but is not forgotten,
    Is long lived.

    Suffering is living. It sucks. It never meets our expectations. Yet, we have each other to help each other along. That takes the edge off in a way no drug or therapy–or religion–can.

    Thank you, Bruce. I still hope you “endure.” We all need each other, and we all don’t forget.

    (back to lurking…)

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    Ian for a long time

    I agree with everything you wrote in this post. Lying to yourself and others doesn’t help the situation.

    “What about the kids?”, people will say. For months or years, you have lied to little Suzy and Timmy about Grandpa’s condition, so how do you explain a “sudden” death or massive decline in health or physical ability. Truth, carefully presented, is the best thing for children.

    Maybe we have come to this realization because we understand this life is all we have. It changes how we think and act. Reality is harsh, but denial never helps.

    Bruce, I appreciate your honesty. You have my sympathy because I understand how frustrated you are in your inability to do what you once did. You also have my admiration because you are doing all you can to be there for your family, as well as continuing to write for the world at large.

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    I hear you.

    I wish I could go run 100 miles for you, up a mountain, carrying a 50 lb sandbag, in the rain, and that would make you better. But it won’t.

    That sucks. Yet you still say it like it is.

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    Thank you for looking life square in the eye and accepting it the way it is, Bruce. Do what you can. Take the medicines, find the comfortable spots, ride in the mobility cart. If it’s not going to get better, maybe you can help slow its getting worse.

    I admire your determination to write even in the midst of suffering, because you know that you help other what you say. Often, you are a breath of reality in a sea of relentless optimism, where optimism is rarely warranted. Thank you for that, too..

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    glenn wood

    figures you’d be a barbara ehrenreich fan also. not surprising. wish more people knew of her. with you in thoughts from baking So Cal. (Newhall)

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    MJ Lisbeth

    One of the reasons I read my favorite poets, Barbara Ehrenreich and you, Bruce, is that you, and they, tell it like it is. (And people who have remained friends over the years–whether they’re across the street or on the other side of the ocean–share that same trait, And I don’t have to perform optimism or cheerfulness for them.

    I only wish that I knew how to ease your pain. At least you have Polly and a bunch of other people who love you.

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    ‘… and we all do fade as a leaf; …’ Isaiah 64:6

    ‘For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.’ James 4:14

    Why the quotes? Cause it’s right in what it is saying. All we have is just now. When we eat a meal, we don’t think about when it is finished, we enjoy it. When we live a life, we don’t think of it ending; we live.

    Unfortunately pain can interfere with our enjoyment of the moment. I hope there is still some moments you can enjoy brother (kindred in views, not necessarily the Christian definition :))

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    Brian Vanderlip

    Hi Bruce, I was reading over on Secular Wings and thought of you when I read this quote from Zoe:
    ‘When Pablo Casals, the cellist, was ninety-one years old, he was approached by a student who asked, “Master, why do you continue to practice?” Casals replied, “Because I am making progress.” – The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, M.D.’
    To be able to simply tell the truth is making progress. I was raised to smile and lie. One can be raised to smile and lie for
    Jesus just as one lears to lie and smile for a parent who beats them. Christianity teaches that one progresses by belief in the unbelievable, the magic rebirth from death, the miracles, the superhero fantasy. Telling the plain truth is what you accomplish, Bruce. It’s uncommon. It’s big and it sometimes hurts too but I prefer to bear that and go forward rather than embracing wild fantasies and nonsense.

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      ... Zoe ~

      That book was helpful to me Brian in going forward in my own recovery. 🙂 And that quote was helpful in allowing me to keep on keeping on with blogging when all I wanted to do these past 20 years is stop blogging. 🙂 I too am grateful for Bruce’s honesty.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    Hello, Bruce. I certainly understand the feeling behind wanting to give in or give up, that urge I fight many times, especially when that emotional state hits out of the blue ! I’m also finding that many people are fed up with situations that trigger these feelings. Knowing my family history of diabetes, I found that this and gastroparesis are linked, and tied in with autoimmune conditions- my g.p. said nothing. Imagine my outrage when I find out that in the U.S., Domperidone is friggin’ banned here– even though it works far better than the Reglan you most likely are prescribed. And then there’s the 2018 trials with NG -101, which so far, show promise because it doesn’t cross the blood- brain barrier, nor affect the heart. I’m interested for future reference for myself, and thought to pass on what I read today. Canada is one place you can get Domperidone from, and maybe Brian you could make some inquiries on Bruce’s behalf- if he asks for that favor- regarding how Canada can assist with this ? I was looking into Reglan’s side effects,and limited benefits. Enterra therapy for electrical stimulation for emptying of the stomach and all. Given the great reviews of Domperidone, it’s shocking that average citizens aren’t told about this drug ! I hope this will help anyone going through this. If it does you any good, Bruce, please let us know.

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    I’ve always thought the Kübler-Ross model of grief works as a framework. No, it isn’t perfect and it doesn’t work for everyone. As always there is “Some assembly required”; you have to modify things to fit and “batteries not included”; you have to motivate yourself to want this, or anything, to work.

    For all its flaws the “denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance” formulation, accepting that you may rearrange the order and skip or repeat steps, kind of works. It highlights that accepting change is a process. That we are complex creatures that seldom think about anything only one way. That we have to struggles through contradictory feelings.

    Being human is to feel. Feeling contradictory emotions and riding the extremes is very human. Accepting that we both love and hate the same people. That we love and hate life. That facing our own demise we laugh, and cry, and cuss, and bargain, mope, and give up, and (if we are lucky) we get to acceptance and peace. Getting there the hard way is very human. Being human and feeling the full weight of our emotions are our highest callings. You can’t be a better human by being less human.

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Bruce Gerencser