In Defence of Quitters

01/08/2016 15:37 | Updated 01 August 2016


*Braxton Boren [2009] did an MPhil in Physics with the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and is now a postdoctoral researcher in the 3D Audio and Applied Acoustics Laboratory at Princeton University. Picture courtesy of Wiki Commons.

I have been seeing the phrase "take your ball and go home" thrown around a lot these days, applied variously to Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or the UK Brexit vote. Then again, I might just be sensitive to the words because they were often applied to me while I was growing up. Though the expression has its technical origins applied to a single person controlling a game through owning a ball shared by others, I most often see it used now as a generic pejorative to describe quitters, whose anti-social tendencies are seen to threaten the larger "ball" which is everyone's shared participation (after all, the UK only voted to go home, not to take the EU with it). In my case it was never literally true, as I never owned a ball and was never allowed to go anywhere. I am speaking, of course, about that most cruel of American socialisation experiments disguised as a class - Physical Education.

I am terrible at sports. However bad you think you are, I am worse. Statistically, you are probably about average. I am an extreme outlier, completely lacking in coordination, intuition or instinct. I was extremely unhappy from roughly ages 5-14, mainly due to being forced to play sports in PE class every day. I was picked last so often that my elementary school PE teacher instituted a new teams-choosing system that randomised the last picks to cloak the truth everyone knew: I was horrible and no rational captain wanted me on their team. Yet once I tried to remove myself from the situation, the same people who didn't want me also relentlessly mocked me as a quitter.

I never thought of myself as a quitter. In other important areas of life - maths, reading, video games - I always saw at least a little gain from initial effort and that intrinsic reward system encouraged me to stick with it and become better. But I am an asymmetrical person - all of my talent was lumped in a couple of areas and was completely lacking in others. I am not being hyperbolic when I say that, over many years of being forced to play sports, I never saw any improvement on my (really abysmal) performance that was sufficient to encourage me to stick with it. All I had was external peer pressure, to which I eventually developed an immunity. And once you don't care about other people, quitting comes very naturally.

Here's the thing most people don't understand about quitters like me (yes, I suppose I'll claim the label now). The urge to quit ("go home") is prior to and initially separate from the desire to harm other's enjoyment ("taking your ball"). I actually went to great lengths to quit obliquely or even in secret to avoid a public incident. In second grade I claimed, untruthfully, that I had misunderstood the rules of baseball, such that once I was "out" I was free to leave the game. In seventh grade, I (correctly) surmised that there were too many kids in our PE class for the teacher to be taking attendance so during that period I instead hid in a dark room rather than go to class. Who says quitters never win? I received top marks in PE that term.

This is not to say that there is not something vindictive, maybe even sadistic, maybe even Satanic, in the desire to quit when everyone else wants you to remain. Milton's summation that for Lucifer it was "better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven" is the ultimate example of this table-turning: apparently he had so little love for heaven that remaining in any form was unthinkable. But it is important for the people on the inside - the ones to whom the system makes sense - to realise that for the quitter the tables already turned a long time ago. They have no love for the game, and once they lose their love of others they will be completely untethered - in hell or something like it.

The great irony of my story is that eventually I was no longer forced to play sports and my life got a lot happier. My love of maths, reading and video games gave me easy membership to the globe-trotting elite, and I have only benefitted from a more frictionless, globalised world where I could change cities or countries at will. I can now spend my time on things I enjoy and probably very few people I know think of me as a quitter.

At the same time, many of the people in the US whose athletic prowess I envied growing up are now Trump supporters - alienated from the global economic system and unable to see any improvement from their continued participation in it. That system demands their assent (either we all have a free trade agreement or none of us do), but they have no intrinsic motivation to go along with it. Only external factors - their love of God, country, or other people - are currently keeping them tethered to the global system. If they lose that love, they will quit, and they will have lost everything. And even we, the insiders, will have lost something too.