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April 21, 2013 |

When Is It Time to Walk Away?

BY Jen Hatmaker

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to make toffee. Again. The first attempt, despite scant instructions and just three ingredients, emerged like a sheet of sand and made me resort to violence and hatred.

Round two: sand again. $&*%!!!!

So I consulted the interwebs to discover the error of my ways. Let me condense the instruction I received:

Keep stirring. Stir constantly. Stir occasionally. Don’t stir once it boils. The temperature is too hot. It’s not hot enough. Too hot, too fast. Oops, too long. Keep a steady boil. NOT A ROLLING BOIL, YOU MORON. Use a whisk. Use a spatula. Use a wooden spoon. Recalibrate your candy thermometer. Don’t use a candy thermometer. Pour immediate at 285 degrees. Drop toffee into ice water and it should be brittle. Oops, while you were doing that it reached 286 degrees. Dump contents. Don’t cook if there is rain within 500 miles. 12 minutes exactly. 7 and a half minutes. 4 minutes and not a second more. If it separates, add water. If it separates, keep stirring. If it separates, turn the heat down. If it separates, turn the heat up. If it separates, I’m sorry to tell you, but your life is in shambles.

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These are what we refer to as Crazy Eyes.
This inspired a new Toffee Doctrine I’d like to discuss today, catalyzed by a Facebook comment of unusual depth: “Girl, sometimes the juice ain’t worth the squeeze.” And I bowed my head and said amen.

There is something to be said for hard work, diligence, for pushing through obstacles and emerging victorious. Heaven forbid we’re people for whom failure is a chronic deal-breaker. Some best things are won through perseverance, and there is simply no other path. Often triumph is seized on the 77th try, and every last effort in Attempts #1-76 was worth it, and not only do we emerge successful, but the false starts and failures became our greatest teachers, and no amount of instruction could replace them.

But there is another narrative to consider, which doesn’t smack of the Protestant Work Ethic we champion or provide a lovely headline, but it is no less essential to health, and confusing the two approaches is not only dangerous but destructive. Help a sister out, Kenny Rogers:

You got to know when to hold ‘em…know when to fold ‘em.

I recently discussed this with my 7th grade daughter. (Fact: 7th grade exists as an evolutionary natural selection process to weed out any tender, confident, precious traits from the adolescent species. Eat or be eaten, kids.) This has been a Challenging Friend Year, and she found herself on the outside, and I don’t even have to tell you what that means because we are all 7th Grade Survivors, am I right?

After a year of working and crying and trying again and crying and taking a different approach and crying more, I finally said, “Baby, some things are precious and worth the work it takes to keep them alive. Plenty of good things require hard work. But some things are too hard, and it’s time to cut bait.”

There is a tipping point when the work becomes exhausting beyond measure, useless. You can’t pour antidote into a vat of poison forever and expect it to transform into something safe, something healthy. In some cases, poison is poison, and the only sane answer is to move on.

Relationships, careers, churches, friendships, expectations, roles, tasks, organizations – these structures and connections can be the most life-giving elements on earth. They can lend meaning and purpose and belonging like nothing else. Within them, we find our tribes and passions, we come to life.

But anything that powerful has a downside, for they are the same things that can drain us dry and leave us for dead. When an endless amount of work and blood and sweat and tears leaves a situation or relationship or even an ambition (Perfect Mom, Size 4 Human, Person Who Has It All Together) as unhealthy as it ever was, when there is virtually no redemption, when the red flags have frantically waved for too long unheeded, the alarm bells receding into white noise after sustained disregard, sometimes the healthiest possible response is to walk away.

Assessing a circumstance as worthy of the toil is a discarded skill. Our culture doesn’t value safe boundaries like it should. We hold private disdain for the one who quit, the one who pulled out, drew a line in the sand, the one who said no more. We secretly wonder if they shouldn’t have tried harder, stayed longer, if this isn’t an indicator of their flimsy loyalty. Surely we would’ve done better in their shoes.

Locked in a toxic relationship or career or ambition or community, the levels of unhealth and spiritual pollution can murder everything tender and Christlike in us, and a watching world is not always privy to those private kill shots. It can destroy our hope, optimism, gentleness. We can lose our heart and lose our way. And here is the key: we can pour an endless amount of energy into the chasm, and it will never matter.

There is a time to put redemption in the hands of God where it belongs and walk away before you destroy your spirit on the altar of Futile Diligence. Not every battle has a winner; sometimes it is all losers, carnage everywhere. When healthy options exist, and there is a safer alternative right…over…there, often the bravest thing we can do is stop fighting for something that will never, ever be well.

Walk away gracefully; we need not fire parting shots over the bow. That only creates more losers, and you’re better than that. Take your dignity and self-respect and precious humanity, and be proud of the way you handled yourself one year from now. You don’t need to be proven right; much more is at stake than validation. You’ll never regret being gracious, but you might deeply regret burning a bridge that might one day be safe enough to venture back over.

It is not ungodly to evaluate critically; it is the wisest thing we can do. Reaching a point where you say “enough” to a toxic environment is not cowardly – it is so very brave. It will free you up to expend your energy in worthy ways, protecting you and maybe even your people from brutal coping mechanisms. (Do we really want to teach our children that “identifying with your captor” is the best way? When all we do is defend our imprisoner, it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror.)

What is the tipping point? There is no formula here and I can’t give one. This requires honest self-evaluation, safe and wise counselors, the close leadership of the Holy Spirit, a sobering assessment of reality. Ask, “Is the juice worth the squeeze here?” and sometimes it is. You might discover signs of life and possibility rising up through the efforts, or the task at hand is simply too worthy to abandon, regardless. There may be necessary work left to do, and it’s too soon to assess. Or maybe the Spirit holds you in place for unclear reasons, which you may or may not ever know, but you will find peace in obedience and continue to listen for marching orders.

But the Toffee Doctrine bears adherence too: you got to know when to fold ‘em – for your health, your heart, purpose, family, your precious life. Certain goals are unattainable, and the means will never actually reach the end. And so often if you just turn a quarter degree, you’ll discover a healthier version just within reach. You’ll find the underlying value intact in a context that fits like a glove. You’ll hear yourself say, “Oh! I didn’t know it could be like this!” The toffee is still good elsewhere; maybe just need to rethink how you get it.

As for me, homemade is out, store bought is in. Now everyone is happy, the kitchen is no longer a war zone, and I know what I’m having with my coffee tomorrow morning. But there was that one recipe involving a microwave…

Someone stop me before I jump back into the crazy.

~

If your instinct is to counter with all the times we must stay the course, I’d ask you to carefully reread the blog and notice I already did that. My advice is for scenarios in which walking away is the right and necessary thing to do. My aim is not to lead a revolution of irresponsible quitters but of discerning disciples.

How are you struggling? Or when did you walk away for the greater good?