Sunday, April 26, 2020

Throwing in the Towel

About five years into writing my doctoral dissertation I sat down to compose a difficult email to my advisor.

I had decided to give up.

I told him I appreciated his unending patience with me, through my relocation to Connecticut, my engagement and wedding planning, my struggle to conceive, and all the anxieties of a recently confirmed pregnancy.  I didn’t want to spend another minute analyzing the allegorical implications of Troubleall’s madness in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair.  I was sick and tired.  I was throwing in the towel.  He wrote back almost immediately.

Dear Kara,

I wonder if you are aware of the origins of that phrase.  Boxers cannot throw in the towel.  That is a decision reserved for their trainers.

Keep writing.        



I did go on to finish my dissertation, and as clumsy and terrible as the final product was, I defended it before a panel of faculty who shook my hand at the end of three long hours and called me Dr. Russell for the first time.  My advisor, trainer's towel stubbornly secured around his shoulders, took Mark and me to his favorite diner and ordered himself an egg crème.  It was his victory as much as mine.

Fast forward two decades and I find myself in the throes of another long battle.  In this corner, a 50-year-old wife and mother of two who thrives on regular, close proximity to friends and family.  In the opposite corner, mother-effing COVID-19. 

I’m tired.  I don’t want to “do” social distancing anymore.  Like many of you, I’m ready to give up the fight.  But every day the damn bell rings to signal a new round.  And every day, I strap on a mask and wash my chapped hands and maintain a six-foot distance from all but three other human beings on the planet.  It doesn’t matter that I’m sick and tired of it all.  I can’t throw in the towel, because the choice is not mine to make.

Please, please don’t listen to the idiots who suggest otherwise.

See, I know about idiots, because I am one, too.  And not just when it comes to boxing metaphors. 

Like you, I’ve known people who have fought harder and more horrible battles than mine.  They’ve battled homelessness.  They’ve battled the grief of losing parents and children.  They’ve faced terminal cancer diagnoses.  They’ve gone off to war, or they’ve been left behind to carry on, alone.  I have always been stunningly inarticulate when it comes to offering encouragement to the battle-weary.  I eventually settled on an all-purpose condolence catch-phrase: “You are so strong.  I don’t know how you do it.”  It felt like the right thing to say.  (Ok, maybe not “right,” but at least not terribly wrong.)  I wanted people to know how much I admired them.  I meant it as a testament to their courage.

With unbelievable grace, they’d smile weakly and accept my attempt at sympathy.

Then one afternoon my best friend lost her sweet and humble husband to suicide.  In the grueling aftermath, I watched in awe as she kept putting one foot in front of the other.  I didn’t know how to express my admiration, so I fell back on the phrases I knew best. 

“You are so strong,” I told her.  “I don’t know how you are doing this.”

She didn’t smile.  She looked me square in the eye, as only a best friend can, and said “What choice do you think I have?”

Thank God she loved me enough to school me. 

I think this virus is teaching all of us a similar lesson.  We do not have a choice but to keep fighting.  It doesn’t matter how tired we are of the masks, or the isolation, or the monotony.  We can’t give up.  Not yet.  If we start pulling our punches now, we’re going to be blindsided. 

Just yesterday, my uncle sent me a music video.  He’s a Christian with a capital C, in the same way that I’m more a “christian” with at best a lowercase letter…maybe even a “k”.  (Which is to say, he’s quite a bit further along on his faith journey than yours truly.)

I wasn’t familiar with the song.  It was performed by an all-boy worship band, and my first impression was that they had beautiful voices and really excellent hair.  

Then I paid attention to the lyrics:

“I count on one thing / The same God that never fails / Will not fail me now / In the waiting / The same God who’s never late / Is working all things out.”
Well, that’s comforting, I thought.  It’s nice to imagine (even believe) there’s a God in heaven who won’t fail us, even now.  “It will all work out” may be unforgivably cliché, but wouldn’t it be something if it were also true?
And then came the chorus:
“I will lift you high in the lowest valley” the perfectly-coiffed boys sang.  And I thought to myself, YES.  THAT is the kind of God I can get behind.  We’re in a pretty low valley right now, and we could sure use a divine hand to lift us out of it.
Except that, as I mentioned earlier, I’m kind of idiot.  Not only when it comes to boxing metaphors and expressions of condolence, but also when it comes to Christian music lyrics.
Turns out, it’s not God speaking in the chorus of “Yes I Will.”  It’s just some dumb old human being.  Some guy who is in his lowest valley and is still praising God.
Well, that’s bullshit (was my first thought).  I need a God who will scoop me up and rescue me, and instead I’ve got one who expects to be praised even when I’m sick and tired?   

And that’s when I had a teeny, tiny epiphany…the only size epiphany idiots are capable of having.  I realized my prayers throughout this pandemic have sounded an awful lot like that email I sent twenty years ago to my dissertation advisor.   

In essence, I begged both of them to call an end to the fight.  And they both gave the same reply:

Keep fighting.

I know my dissertation advisor wasn’t a sadist.  I trust the reason he didn’t throw in the towel is because he knew I hadn’t yet given it my all.  I like to think the same is true of God.  I trust that when He throws in the towel for me, it will only be because I have no fight left.  If I trust in that, it becomes a little easier to keep swinging.

So whether you watch Fox or CNN, whether you believe in God or in Dr. Fauci, please don’t stop fighting.  Not yet.  When the bell rings for another round, come out swinging.  If it helps, try doing it in a bright satin robe with your alter ego emblazoned on the back.  You’re probably not leaving the house, anyway. 

Come on.  I had to.