Prudence and Knowing When to Quit

“The Cardinal and Theological Virtues” (detail) by Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


“And if any one loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these.” (Wisdom 8:7).


“Don’t be a quitter!”  It’s a phrase frequently used to encourage—or belittle.  It goes along with that silly challenge to “Go outside your comfort zone.”  But I have been a longtime believer in quitting—when it’s appropriate.

We all like to be comfortable and avoid difficulties.  I’m not advocating following a plan of seeking an ever more comfortable life and eschewing challenges of all kinds.  I am, rather, suggesting that this (and all) advice should be evaluated with prudence, self-knowledge, and a grain of salt.  That which is the right course of action for someone else, may not be the right course for you.  It is valuable to learn to make wise decisions regardless of the opinion and choices that others sanction.

Neither am I suggesting that you be contrary and go against the flow as a matter of course.  That might also lead to bad results, depending on the particular flow you happen to be in.  I am suggesting you practice the virtue of Prudence.  Prudence is one of the cardinal—or, pivotal—virtues.  It is “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it,” (CCC 1806).  Obviously, prudence is a really important virtue to develop in order to guide your growth in all the other virtues.  In fact, it is known as “the charioteer of the virtues” (CCC 1806).

I was hoping to give a gamut of examples of times I had quit and been happy, times I had quit and regretted it, and times I had persevered and had become a better person through doing so.  But, honestly, though I know my life is replete with examples of all those, the only ones that come to mind are the times I have quit with great results!  I know following through on a commitment is to be done whenever morally possible.  I’m sure I have grown in that other cardinal virtue of fortitude by practicing stick-to-it-iveness in many, many situations.  I have surely learned my lesson from staying a stupid course just in order to not quit.  But none of these stand out!

What does stand out is one of my favorite and often thought of memories of the freedom of being allowed to quit.  It happened the summer I turned nine.  I attended a summer camp with my sister and two cousins.  This was not the summer “camps” of today, which are essentially week long classes to keep kids out of their parents’ hair for a while.  This was real camp.  This was cabins, sleeping bags, and a mess hall, a lake, arts and crafts with pine cones, camp counselors, woods, campfires, the works!  I remember gathering in the mess hall to sing “camp songs” like “The Cat Came Back.”

The only real and distinct memory I have from this week or two away from home is the first day my group went to the pool.  I was not a strong swimmer and was anxious in pools.  Really anxious.  But, I was also a rule-following goody-goody.  We were told to get into line to go up the ladder of the high dive and jump in.  Frankly, this terrified me.  Here we were, supposedly having fun at camp and I just wanted to go home now!  But, afraid to talk to anyone (I was a very timid and anxious child), I dutifully lined up, climbed the ladder in turn, and plunged to my probable death by drowning.  I had no choice.  It was what was required of us.  To my surprise and disappointment, I did not drown and sputtered my way to the side of the pool to climb out and get in line again.  They had told us to get in line to jump off the board, after all.  As I stood there dripping wet and crying in line, a nice counselor came to me and asked why I was crying.  I admitted that I did not want to jump off the high dive.  Her answer was the voice of angels singing.  She gave me a happiness unanticipated.  Freedom from a life sentence!  “Well, honey, you don’t have to!”  What could be better than this revelation?!  I’ll tell you what could be better.  Not only was I released from the sentence of jumping off the high dive, I was actually offered a choice of what I would do instead!  Not just a choice between the expected options of swimming or sitting it out.  She asked me what I would like to do instead.  Without hesitation, I asked if I could go to arts and crafts.  She escorted me over to that building herself!  I was engulfed by a relief and gratitude that I feel to this day!  (Thank you, kind counselor!)

My thoughts go back to that day whenever I am faced with a situation that I dread, that fills me with anxiety—and then I realize, there is no moral reason why I must remain on this course.  I don’t have to!  This provides a freedom not only to quit, but, sometimes to stay and keep at it.  Sometimes, the best inducement to carry on in a challenging task, is the knowledge that you are free to choose to quit at any time.  But, sometimes, it really is more prudent to actually quit, when noting but “not quitting” is to be gained by persevering in the project.

It is vastly more important to know yourself than to live under the tyranny of a popular catch phrase.  Rather than “Don’t be a quitter” exercise the prudence to know when it will make you happier to quit and when it is a better course to push through to the end.  Instead of stepping “outside your comfort zone” because you were told it’s what you ought to do, be aware of your level of comfort—and your level of anxiety.  Your gut reaction usually gives good advice.  Do accept challenges to grow, but not at the cost of violence to your weaknesses.

Sometimes it really is okay to make silly crafts out of pine comes instead of jumping off the high dive.


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About the Author

Susannah Pearce

I’m a Catholic homeschooling mom of two, who supports Distributism (thinking small and local with regard to economics), universality (with regard to respect for the dignity of the human person), humor (with regard to humor), integrity (with regard to what we should strive for).

I’m from Southern California and am now living in The South with my husband (a writer) and two kids—and an unspecified number of chickens! I do many things badly because that’s often the best I can manage. Ever heard G.K. Chesterton’s quip? “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Susannah has a MA in Theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville.

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