In Praise of Incompletion

By Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Professor of English
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

Most of us were taught to clean our plates, finish our assignments, and complete our chores before going out for the evening. Coaches told us to finish the race. Hiking companions egged us on when we were tempted to stop before the final uphill scramble to the peak. Finding ourselves in inappropriate jobs or depressing workplaces, we may have been admonished at least to finish out the summer or the school year or the term of office. And how many hours have been wasted sitting through movies we knew after 20 minutes promised neither edification nor entertainment?

My husband and I take a certain pleasure now in giving ourselves permission to walk out of the theater (even, sometimes, abandoning our popcorn) after those first 20 minutes. We’ve seen the first 20 minutes of quite a few movies whose disappointingly wooden dialogue and predictable outcomes made quick judgment and decisive action easy: we’d rather go home and read aloud. The discipline of walking out of movies has taught us something about the power of that deceptive ethic of completion. “Finish what you start” may seem to be, and often is, good advice. But like most general maxims, it can be a trap, and its misapplication can be costly, sometimes deadly, and curiously self-deceptive.

The value of completing projects, journeys, books, and sentences is in most instances indisputable. There’s a reason we were taught not to be “quitters,” why some vigorous Scout leader insisted, just when we were ready to sit out the rest of the hike, that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Even the present generation has very likely heard the voice of Churchill intoning, “We will fight them on the beaches” at Britain’s most desperate moment, invoked as a model of heroic determination. And “The Little Engine that Could” is still huffing along on bookshelves across America muttering “I think I can, I think I can….” Maxims abound to the same effect: “Never give up,” “Never say die,” “Try, try again,” and “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” But heroic determination is one thing; mindless doggedness is another. The difference between the two is worth considering.

One common fallacy that falls into the latter category is the “I’ve-invested-too-much-to-stop-now” principle. This principle, roughly speaking, is that the more money, time, energy, and brainpower you’ve expended on something the more urgent it is that you continue to expend those resources until success is reached. That is to say, do not admit failure. Pour money and manpower on failure until it turns into success. Note that in its pure form, the “I’ve-invested-too-much” principle does not involve reframing the problem along the way, reconceiving the objective, or returning to square one. It involves doing more of what one has begun doing in the lingering hope that expended resources will thus be “justified.”

Boy on beach

This dubious principle is frequently invoked in ordinary situations of frustration: “I’ve invested so much time (in this project, this job, this co-dependent relationship) I can’t afford to give up now.” Pride is at stake, but not only pride. What is riding on the difficult decision whether to jump ship is also our very investment in the idea of investment: the idea that the effort we expend on projects and relationships is being “invested.” The metaphor is the problem. Investments are made on hope of return, on certain notions of growth and profit, on a definition of success that entails meeting preconceived and quantifiable goals. It works well enough as a form of economic behavior. But the metaphor falters when people begin to speak about what they’ve “invested” in their education, what they’ve “invested” in a friendship, what they’ve “invested” in their commitment to a job, whether a weekend spent on a project for science or a decade spent behind a desk.

The fallacy that education is for the purpose of getting a job, for instance, is reinforced by the language of investment, but it reduces education to a means to an end, and, more importantly, narrows it to serving particular goals rather than allowing it to be the wide-angled, serendipitous, surprising process it can be when unexpected insights are recognized as trailheads that open up new paths and lead us where we didn’t expect to go. The pre-med who finds she can’t live without poetry may have to rearrange her life, or at least reconceive her idea of what a professional life looks like. Moreover, education treated as an investment tends to devalue digressions such as taking a year off to think about life while painting houses or taking a painting class that fulfills no institutional requirements but nourishes the flagging spirit.

One thing some people find out in college and quite a few people find out in graduate school is that they don’t want to finish. Often, if one is a counselor, parent, professor, or friend, the appropriate response to such an announcement is encouragement to stay and see it through. Once in awhile, it’s not. Urging someone to complete a process that is neither life-giving, nor fruitful may be a misguided kindness. “Why don’t you quit and do something you can put your heart into?” can be a liberating message that may help release a prisoner of conventional expectations into new possibilities. A thirty-year-old returning student, then a sophomore in college, told me once that quitting school at the age of nineteen was one of the best decisions she had made. She hadn’t been ready then. She was now. Giving herself permission not to trudge through college half-heartedly opened the way to a number of variegated and adventurous years in the working world and eventually a wholehearted return to college with a deepened sense of purpose.

The idea of “career” can be similarly entrapping. Most of us know adults stuck in uninspiring workplaces wistfully glancing down their roads not taken because at some point change would have felt too costly, or looked too much like failure. The awards companies and institutions give 10-year, 20-year and 30-year employees—the gold watches, plaques, or stock certificates—recognize and honor the sort of fidelity, stability, and team loyalty we can all appreciate, but there’s little comparable recognition for the courage it takes to quit mid-career and seek new, more satisfying work, perhaps more suited to talents, tastes and self-knowledge acquired later in adult life. One exceptional man I knew quit a prestigious top-of-the-ladder job after five successful years because he knew he’d given the institution what he had to give and believed he might use his energies to better purpose somewhere new. “Besides,” he told me, “I never planned to spend my whole career in one place. I want to keep stretching and experimenting. I know there’s a cost to that; it’s one I’m willing to pay.”

Not everyone could or should organize a life around such a risky “five-year-plan” model. Certainly real fidelity to one thing can be as invigorating and enlivening as change. The trick is to understand one’s own calling—and not to understand the idea of calling simply in terms of “what to do with my life,” but to ask periodically what is “the call of the moment.” What is this phase or chapter of my life about? Do I renew my commitments, reexamine the terms of those commitments and come to a new understanding of why I made them? Or, alternatively, is it time to let go of what has ceased to yield growth and call forth the best that is in me? Both can be honorable choices. Going doggedly on without ever posing the questions, substituting grim duty for heartfelt assent, is not. There may be a time to say, even about good and important work or institutional commitments, “These things have served their purpose, let them be.”

On a smaller scale, let me say a word about the value of incompletions in everyday life. The number of half-read books at my bedside testifies to my own well-established habit of incompletion. I’d like to finish most of them. There isn’t time. But I have reconciled myself to, and even come to enjoy, the compromise of “dipping into” what I don’t have time to immerse myself in. A few chapters of a good book can be satisfying in the same way as a few bites of a good dessert. Sometimes it’s sufficient to find what you’re looking for in a single chapter well read—release from the world, a thought-provoking idea, the delight of a memorable sentence or encounter. What Austen fan hasn’t gone back to Elizabeth and Darcy in the garden or what Hemingway aficionado to the fishing at Pamplona scene in “The Sun Also Rises?” The favorite scene is a kind of pilgrimage spot, not always requiring the long route through the novel to get there. There’s something childlike and permissible about the favorite spot, the indirect route, lingering, meandering, and not being “with the program.”

Anyone who has taken walks with small children knows that “getting there” is not the point. They stop and squat down. They smell plants. They laugh at dog poop. They pick up bugs. They drop the pebble they’ve been carrying, start to look for it, and find a feather instead. The feather turns out to be so satisfactory they forget about the pebble. And where you end up, which may or may not be where you thought you were going, turns out to be the place you were going all the time.

Goal-oriented adults have to work hard to retrieve the habits of mind and heart I’m describing—the unselfconscious playfulness that will stop over anything and take an interest; the openness to noticing the random and irrelevant—indeed to retrieve the basic attitude that nothing is random or irrelevant.

Stack of books

I may be taking a risk in giving students occasional permission—or even a directive—not to finish the assigned reading. The point of doing so is to invite them to stop and ponder rather than plodding onward. “If something gives you pause, pause!” I tell them. “Don’t go on—go in!” Write marginal notes. Scribble in your journal. Call a classmate and talk about what you found. Even if that means you only get to a portion of the assigned reading. One of the great virtues of books (as opposed to films, for instance) is that you can put them down, look up, give yourself over to imagining the scene or following the argument, look back at an earlier passage, get out another book it reminded you of, or have a conversation before going on. What happens in those pauses is digestion. In this culture of instant food, credit, and gratification, we learn to consume books the way we consume everything else—quickly, not very reflectively, speed-reading and counting chapters as though the back cover were a finish line.

Well-meaning school districts and well-marketing publishing houses put out lists every year of books students should have read by the time they get to college, or out of college—books one should have read to be culturally literate, or trendy, or clued. They have their uses, those lists. But they tend to turn reading into another form of consumerism. To read one book well is better than to speed-read ten and remember nothing more than plot, if that. To read half a book well may be better than finishing if not finishing is what allows time for real engagement with what’s there. The more the mind and imagination are engaged, the slower one tends to read. We are rarely encouraged to go slowly at anything, any more than we’re encouraged to do anything partway. But to read and think about a few key chapters in Moby-Dick or Paradise Lost or the Bible can be life-changing, and enough. One can come back. They’ll be there.

This is the good news about the half-finished book: we can return when we want more. We can be leisurely. Like eating food slowly and stopping when our appetites are satisfied. Americans in particular tend to eat in ways that suppress awareness of real appetite. We eat out of habit. But if we attuned ourselves to our natural bodily appetites, we might eat more healthily, more moderately, and with much deeper satisfaction. So, I believe, with the intellectual and spiritual appetites. It might be that if we were to go where our curiosities led us, dwell there while authentically engaged, and stop when we had enough, we might, paradoxically, be less inclined to boredom, superficiality, or fickle interests, because we might experience in a more authentic way the movement of the spirit within us that seeks our growth and highest good. Like plants we seek the sun. Natural creatures tend, unspoiled by cultural pressures, to seek out what they need, take what they need, and stop when they’re satisfied. We learn, unlike them, to betray ourselves. One of the forms such betrayal takes is grim duty.

Notice the adjective. Duty itself is an important corrective to sloth and self-indulgence. But grim duty or doggedness, the going on and finishing without heart for the task, is hardly a virtue, and often a form of self-violation that serves no one well. My mother’s healthy philosophy about housework was not to do it until you’re sick of it, but to do it until you’re pleased with it. Or until you need to stop and do something more important. She taught me to value the peace provided by a tidy room, the economy of food stored properly, the health fostered by cleanliness. And she was a pragmatist about household tasks. “Do the most obvious thing first,” she advised cheerily, whisking through a room picking up detritus as she went. “Then whatever you have time for before the guests come.” But she made it clear that the real preparation for guests was a hospitable heart, thoughtful conversation, and a readiness to share good pleasures. Unfinished housework you have always with you.

G.K. Chesterton gave us valuable words to live by when he wrote, “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” It may be worth doing halfway. Because the fact is, we don’t always even know what “finished” looks like. We may be finished before the task is. The real purpose our efforts are serving may be different from what we think. And the approval that comes with completion may be a little too costly. One of Zelda Fitzgerald’s characters offers the surprising advice, “It’s approval you need to avoid.” It may be that the courage required to stop what’s not serving our deepest purposes is the courage to forego the reward of general approval. But approval is a costly business, as most of us learn on our journeys through adulthood.

Those of us in “midlife” who are old enough to have seen friends, elders, and children die what seem untimely deaths know that “mid” is a very approximate idea. We don’t know how near the end we are, or how near the beginning. Jesus’ admonishment to be like little children, like the Buddhist practice of cultivating a “beginner’s mind,” emphasizes that we are always at a point of beginning and unknowing, and must consider each day what learning and what fresh gifts are available. Beginning is a state of readiness, awareness, receptiveness, and openheartedness. In that state, whatever gift is offered in the moment or the process may be received. “Finishing” may be beside the point.

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