For noble and very understandable reasons,
we’ve come to associate maturity and kindness
with a capacity not to give up on people.
Our heroes and heroines keep faith with those
They don’t throw in the towel when trouble
rears its head.
They put up with the hardships and friction.
Running away is disloyalty.
Many things are dispensable: people shouldn’t
But this broad and generous truth can be in
danger of missing out on an important caveat:
that health and maturity may also require,
at points, a subtle capacity to give up on
one or two people, not always and indefinitely
to keep giving them the benefit of the doubt,
not invariably to forgive them one more time,
not relentlessly to imagine the nice things
they might really really have meant beneath
the thoughtless and unkind things they actually
did and said.
We might need occasionally to despair of someone
– as the price to pay for keeping faith
It’s in the lives of children that we see
the inability to give up on someone take on
its starkest, and most regrettable forms.
By their nature and circumstance, children
cannot give up on those entrusted with looking
after them if and when the latter are disappointing
or cruel; children present us with troubling
exemplars of the impulse to keep going at
any cost with a person who offers one love
– even when that love is blended with the
darkest and most unhealthy elements.
Even when beset by emotional neglect, coldness,
unreliability, meanness, brusqueness, broken
promises to improve and worse, children will
think some of the following:
– ‘Maybe they will change’ The child
places infinite faith in the capacity of the
loved one to evolve in a desired direction.
Whatever the lack of outward evidence, the
child imagines the caregiver coming to important
realisations, rethinking their position, seeing
By a form of magical thinking, the child clings
to the idea of the adult being on the cusp
of transforming themselves into the person
they so badly need them to be.
– ‘Maybe the outward behaviour is bad,
but inside they are good’: Heaven knows
the outward stuff may not be pretty.
There might be shouting, stonewalling, outright
beastliness… but the child holds on to the
notion that – where it counts – the adult
The fundamental truth about them must be sound:
the center of them is sweet, touching, warm
The child may be the butt of the adult’s
most vicious moods but they are, through it
all, always also their most devoted and fervent
– ‘Maybe the problem is that I am bad…’
The difficulties can’t be disputed but their
origins are up for grabs and here the child
shows a tragically intense degree of imagination.
Yes, there is badness around, but that must
be because they, the child, are ultimately
somehow to blame.
If only they could be different, the adult
wouldn’t be so tricky.
There is one thought that must be warded off
above all others: that the adult might just
be a mean and self-serving mediocrity.
That is simply not possible.
Better to be a monster or wretch oneself than
to have ended up in the hands of a parent
unworthy of respect.
– ‘No one and nothing else could be better.’
Children have no options.
They can’t run away, begin again or say
they’ve had enough.
The world isn’t broad.
The best of childhoods is an open prison.
Therefore, children don’t even picture themselves
in other circumstances.
What is has to be.
Those who have most to complain about don’t
even raise their voice.
Frighteningly, each of these positions has
its adult equivalent.
In certain unfulfilling relationships, we
may have as much of a skill as the most unfortunate
child (probably the child we once were) at
the art of justifying why we are here, why
we are to blame, why they are innocent and
why we cannot move.
It is we in particular, those remorselessly
skilled at not giving up, who need to hear
a curious-sounding lesson in being a little
We need to hear that, surprisingly, some people
just don’t change: that their characters
have been bolted shut through trauma and there
is no chance that they will ever – whatever
they may say and however intensely they promise
– display any evolution.
We need to hear that surprisingly, some people
aren’t entirely good and we aren’t necessarily
We need to learn to blame and get annoyed
with someone other than ourselves.
We need to do something very strange: walk
This is no sign of cowardice or weakness of
It’s a sign that we have (finally) learnt
to love ourselves and so place our needs where
these should always have been: at the center
of our considerations.