Vontae Davis, a cornerback for the Buffalo Bills, quit the NFL during the middle of a game last week. He said he was retiring. Critics called him a quitter. Quitting in the middle is disrespectful of teammates and fans. But he said he didn’t feel like playing anymore.
Sometimes it’s wise to quit. If a sport or an addiction is destroying your body, you should stop. If an organization is corrupting your soul, you should walk away.
But usually, it is wrong to quit a game or organization abruptly and without warning. We use words like “retire” and “resign” to indicate morally appropriate leave-taking. We use words like “desert” and “abandon” to indicate unethical quitting.
The urge to quit is normal. Kids dream of running away. Students think about dropping out. Husbands and wives fantasize about walking away. Workers dream of giving notice.
Literature is full quitters and dropouts, rebels and mavericks. Achilles quit fighting because he was mad at the king. Holden Caulfield left the phonies behind.
We celebrate mountain men and pioneers. Huck Finn and Jim were runaways. But they were escaping from slavery and abuse. We especially admire dissenters who quit because of unjust conditions.
As a boy Benjamin Franklin worked for his cruel brother in a print shop in Boston. Young Ben ran away at age 17, arriving alone in Philadelphia. Soon enough Franklin and his friends were declaring their independence from England.
When Henry David Thoreau was 20, he began a job teaching. The conditions were poor. He was required to use corporal punishment on his pupils. He quit the job after two weeks. Later he was jailed for refusing to pay his taxes. In his essay “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau said that a “peaceable revolution” would occur if all the constables and tax-collectors resigned in protest.
Fast-forward to the anonymous New York Times op-ed, written by someone trying to thwart the Trump agenda from within. Critics have said internal dissenters should resign, if they do not support the president. Others suggest that it is better to stay and help the country than to resign.
Despite our fascination with rebellious quitters, quitting is often viewed as weak and immoral — especially in sports. Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi said, “winners never quit and quitters never win.” He also warned, “once you start quitting, it becomes a habit.”
We admire tenacity and perseverance. But we also need to know when to throw in the towel. Tenacity can become stubbornness.
Sometimes it is stupid to persevere.
Common decency is based on sticking around and sucking it up. Think of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He dreams of running off and seeing the world. At one point he wants to quit life itself. But he realizes that by staying home, he has made the world a better place.
A key issue in this discussion is the conflict between loyalty and autonomy. We are free to quit. But loyalty gives life meaning. Liberty and independence are important. But we also owe something to our friends and colleagues.
A sudden, unannounced departure will cause headaches and heartaches for those who are left behind. It is rude to walk away without warning. But how long must you hang on for the sake of someone else?
Retirement and resignation are different from just quitting. When people retire or resign they announce it in advance. They clean up their offices. They may even help train a replacement. They want to leave things in good order after they depart.
But sometimes the desire to quit includes the urge to cause chaos. The runaway wants to teach his parents a lesson. The deserting husband wants to hurt his wife. The desire to leave is often connected to the desire to tell people off. The dream of quitting a job includes the fantasy of saying “Take this job and shove it.”
Quitting is morally complicated and psychologically interesting. Quitting can be benevolent or malevolent, productive or destructive. Quitters can be selfish and mean. They can also be concerned with truth, justice and the greater good.
To quit or not to quit? That’s really a version of Hamlet’s famous question. In answer it, we assert our freedom and clarify our loyalties.