Have you ever felt like giving up?

Perhaps you have a dream you’ve worked long and hard to achieve, but it still seems out of reach. Maybe you’re going through a difficult time looking for a job, or you’re working but just getting by, and burdened with debt. Perhaps you’re in the middle of a divorce, suffering the loss of a loved one, or facing an illness. You hate your boss; you failed your mid-terms. 

Whatever adversities we face, there are days – perhaps weeks and months – when we want to pull the covers over our heads and stop trying. Some of us give up altogether, yet others manage to persevere. What’s the difference between those who quit, and those who just won’t?

Determined to succeed
My friend Jorge Perez, a screenwriter and personal trainer in his 30’s, has worked 12 hour days, ssix days a week for the last three years, putting every extra waking hour and every penny he’s earned – close to $100,000 – into Bodies of Work, an independent TV pilot he wrote, cast, directed and shot. He’s determined to be a success, but when he gets discouraged, he thinks of what he learned from the book Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. “Your car goes where your eyes go. In other words, wherever you focus your attention is where you’re headed, with related consequences. It takes the same energy to focus on positive outcomes as negative ones, with better results.”

Recently I met 22-year-old Lily Eagle Dormand Colby. She was born to mentally ill, drug-addicted parents and spent years being shuffled around foster care. At the age of 16, Lily sought legal independence and became a de facto parent to her 13-year-old autistic brother. She put herself through Yale on full scholarship, is currently interning in the office of United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and is working with two U.S. Senators on foster care reform. In January, Lily will enter law school at Berkeley. When asked how she keeps going she says, “I learned never to take no for an answer. You have to speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.” She also learned to reach out for support wherever she could find it – in her case, from teachers.

“I’m not giving up”
For lessons on resilience, I never had to look any further than my own late sister, whose dying words were, “I’m not giving up.” Pam battled Cystic Fibrosis, lived independently, graduated college with an honours diploma in Early Childhood Education, and ran her own daycare before her illness took its final toll. Pam taught me that even when you are at your most powerless and feeling like you can’t go on, you still have the power to choose between faith or fear, despair or hope, forgiveness or revenge. She espoused the words of Viktor Frankl: “When you can’t change your circumstances, you are challenged to change yourself.” 

Harvard Professor Dr. Shelley H. Carson, author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life, says that resilience is a synthesis of biological, psychological and social factors. “While there appears to be some genetic influence to resilience, much of it is determined by one’s mental attitude and ability to mobilize others on one’s own behalf.”

Qualities of resilient people
Resilient people, says Dr. Carson, have three qualities:
1) They focus on what they have rather than on what they don’t have.
2) They experience and exhibit gratitude for what they have.
3) They are realistically optimistic. They accept their present circumstances and they make the best of it. They focus on the best way to move forward and set goals to do so, rather than looking back or blaming others for their current difficulties.

Like almost any behaviour, resilience can be learned, says Sam Goldstein, co-author of The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life. Negative thinking is a bad habit you can change by teaching yourself to re-frame your experiences and expectations. To increase your resilience, stay connected to others, pick your battles, look after your health by maintaining good diet and exercise, maintain a sense of wonder, and give back to your community.

One of the best examples I know of giving back instead of giving up is former actor Mel Ryane, who left Canada for Hollywood and found her career shrinking as she aged. When a flyer showed up on her doorstep asking for volunteers for her local school, she created “The Shakespeare Club,” for grades 3, 4 and 5. She’s changed hundreds of kid’s lives over the last few years by mounting full-scale productions of Shakespeare with them. She’s also written a memoir of the experience, and her blog, http://www.teachingwill.com/, has become a sensation.

Winston Churchill once admonished, “Never, never, never, never give up.” However, it’s important to know the difference between giving up and surrender. Giving up is an act of anger or despair. It implies there’s still some fight left, some unfinished business to complete. Surrender is a release, a peace in knowing there is nothing more to give or receive in a given situation, a grace in the letting go. Sometimes we have to recognize that difference, and learn how to let go.

Ultimately, of course, our final destination is a letting go – but until then, don’t give up.

For inspiration, visit http://www.des.emory.edu/mfp/efficacynotgiveup.html; http://www.handprintsonmyheart.com/; and the following books: Something to Feel Good About Every Day; To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times by Rabbi Naomi Levy; and Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life by Phillip Simmons.

Heather Summerhayes Cariou, born in Ontario, is the author of SixtyFive Roses, a Sister’s Memoir. She is a founding member of the Galaxy Writers Workshop in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband, actor Len Cariou, and sits on the board of the International Women’s Writing Guild.