Linda Downing

Don’t quit too soon

Sometimes we quit too soon. We have heard that failure builds character, but we’d rather quit while we’re ahead — or behind — as the case may be. The untiring zeal of those who appear to hold the key to our future overwhelms us. Knowledge may be power, but too much information (TMI) can intimidate us before we start or may even stop our finish.

U.S. special Mideast envoy Martin Indyk resigned in June: He gave up on bringing Israel and the Palestinians to a peace agreement. The region is heating up, and with all that he knew (TMI) Indyk had enough. He returned to a Washington think-tank. Serving as special adviser on Mideast peace issues is not the same as carrying the weight of failure in the middle of the fray.

Believing we are something we are not or that we are achieving something we are not dissolves when failure looms. Around the time Indyk quit, Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski allegedly declared ties with the U.S. worthless. Since we scaled back our missile defense in Eastern Europe, Sikorski believes the U.S. will fail Poland should need arise and that clinging to that failure only “creates a false sense of security” for the Poles.

Brilliant ambassadors like Indyk sometimes retreat, and dream-filled countries like America sometimes fail to inspire a positive world opinion. If we place our faith in people or nations, we create an unrealistic haven. Neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote that human happiness does not require the absence of suffering but “the call of a potential meaning.”

Finding meaning in failure is a kind of success. The title of Gary Shteyngart’s memoir,

“Little Failure,” comes from the appellation his mother gave him when he told her he would be a writer instead of a lawyer. He accepted that name for a while until he used his failure—writing—to discover his meaning—understanding of his parents’ lives so he could make sense of his own.

If we underestimate others, we will not see our own prospects. A Mick Jagger lookalike, craggier and thinner than the original, installed an awning on my house. At first take I doubted his strength and know-how. Then he spoke and a deep, radio-announcer voice poured forth. He worked with the strength of ten larger, healthier-looking men. Returning later to finish the job when no one was at home, he left a note: “We came. We conquered. We departed.”

I was astounded. I grinned. I laughed. This guy was quoting, or misquoting, Julius Caesar’s description of one of his victories: “I came. I saw. I conquered.” If he could—the craggy guy, not Caesar—I can too—succeed, that is—at something—and take joy in it.

Standing beside Israel’s finest soldiers, the shepherd boy David looked even less likely to succeed. Yet, when the giant Goliath challenged the God of Israel and all the army quaked, David’s reaction was: “Who is this that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Samuel 17:26). TMI was certainly available: Goliath was almost ten feet tall, heavily armored, well trained, and free of moral hesitancy. David killed him with a slingshot. Only one thing prevented catastrophic failure: He ignored TMI and believed in something bigger than himself—or Goliath.

Finding truth requires the right starting point. That is the quest of this column. If we seek simple truth, we can find it together—side-by-side.

Linda M. Downing is a freelance writer. Contact her at