Sometimes, Give Up the Ship

. 6 min read . Written by Russell Smith
Sometimes, Give Up the Ship

Break the chain

For most of the year, I fly the Commodore Perry Flag outside our house. When I bought the flag years ago, I believed Commodore Matthew Perry said those words as his ship came under attack from the British during the War of 1812. My kind neighbor, Rob Beard, informed me of the correct history. Captain James Lawrence actually spoke the words, “Don’t give up the ship!” – the USS Chesapeake – as he lay mortally wounded in a battle against the British HMS Shannon outside Boston Harbor. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry – older brother of Commodore Matthew Perry, who ended Japanese isolationism in 1854 – took his friend Lawrence’s last defiant cry as his personal battle flag. Hence the name “Commodore Perry Flag.”

I receive not infrequent comments and questions about the flag. A couple years ago, some  neighbors told my wife that they had faced some hard struggles that year. Every time they walked by our house, they’d see the Perry Flag and it gave them renewed hope and heart. I felt touched when my wife passed the story along; it cheered me that our neighbors found comfort in the message and symbolism of the flag.

I love that message of dogged determination and purposeful persistence. I try to live my life with such an ethos. That is why I fly the flag: to remind me to keep going.

Related to this advice around persistence, we often read “Don’t Break the Chain.” Famously promoted by comedian Jerry Seinfeld as the productivity approach he and Larry David used to write  the scripts for Seinfeld, the phrase emphasizes the daily repetition of a key habit, with the idea of never failing to perform that action – hence, don’t break the chain. Seinfeld and David sat in a room and wrote every day. They didn’t take a ‘cheat day;’ they didn't make excuses. They sat down and wrote.

Seinfeld and David had good reason to take this chain seriously. Eknath Easwaran wrote in Passage Meditation,

“There is only one failure in meditation: the failure to meditate faithfully. A Hindu proverb says, “Miss one morning, and you need seven to make it up.” Or as Saint John of the Cross expressed it, “He who interrupts the course of his spiritual exercises and prayer is like a man who allows a bird to escape from his hand; he can hardly catch it again.””

In much, perhaps most, maybe almost all, of life, these are excellent watchwords. “Don’t Give Up the Ship:” Persevere. Keep Going. “Don’t Break the Chain:” Pound the stone every day.

But sometimes you should give up the ship. You should break the chain.

Let’s examine when and why.

Overcoming A Bad Habit Chain

In the Seinfeld and meditation instances, a good, salutary habit creates the chain. We can also easily have bad habit chains. Right now, I have a good habit chain going: not drinking alcohol. Less healthfully, I also have a bad habit chain going: I’m imbibing far too much soda. Darn those talented soda craftspeople at Ale-8 in Winchester, Kentucky – their Orange Cream and Blackberry seasonal sodas taste so yummy. Almost every day this summer, I have enjoyed one or the other.

I need to break this chain.

Occasional Pauses Strengthen the Overall Chain

Exercise and training are the best examples of this practice. When preparing for an event like an Ironman or weightlifting competition, you generally follow a prescribed schedule and regimen of training. After that event or max lift attempt, your body may require a few days or weeks to recover.

When you return to training, you often find yourself stronger or capable of greater endurance than before. Your body hasn’t simply recovered – it has grown by having a period of rest.

Your mind and spirit may have grown, too. Fatigued from an intense and lengthy training regimen, you may find renewed enthusiasm for your training after a rest.

During the years when I trained with “Max Bob” Whelan in Washington, DC, I also took a few work trips to Australia each year, lasting two to three weeks per trip. Generally on those trips, I did not exercise much. Upon my return, I always found my body capable of lifting more weight than I could before my departure. Again, my body and mind enjoyed the rest – the breaking of the chain – and grew stronger because of the break.

Clear Failure

We have a difficult time coming to terms with sunk cost. We tell ourselves that we haven’t wasted the past year trying to launch our startup; we simply need another six months to make it a success. All entrepreneurs encounter roadblocks, obstacles, difficulties. Power through them! Don’t Give Up the Ship!

Maybe. Maybe we really do need a bit more time. But we should take a clear-headed, objective view of the situation. We may realize that, with six more months, we’re only throwing good time after bad.

Let go. The previous year has passed; it will never come again. It is a sunk cost. But all of our time from this moment on need not be anchored to that sunk cost. We can spend our time differently. We can give up the ship and seek more life-giving ways to harness our future.

We Find a Better Ship

In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Captain Kirk and his rogue crew find their ship overpowered by the Klingon mercenary Kruge. Kirk has ceased fighting and agreed to allow Kruge’s men to board the USS Enterprise. But Kirk tricks Kruge. As the Klingons board, Kirk and his crew engage the Enterprise’s self-destruct command and beam down to the Genesis planet. Kruge’s minions discover the deception too late and blow up with the ship.

On the planet, watching their beloved Enterprise disintegrate into the atmosphere, Kirk asks, “My God, Bones…what have I done?” In essence: why did I give up the ship?

Dr. McCoy – Bones – replies, “What you had to do, what you always do. Turn death into a fighting chance to live.”

Bones was right. Kirk gave up the Enterprise because, in that situation, he had found a better ship – the Genesis planet.

We might find ourselves in a similar situation. Our entrepreneur from above may have encountered a better opportunity along the way. It’s not the opportunity he envisioned when starting out, but it offers a better opening now.

Like Kirk instinctively knew, staying onboard a bad situation – or even an alright situation – makes no sense when we find a better ship.

Our Heart Knows

Once or twice in life, we may come to a place where we pause. We stop. We listen. We hearken aurem cordis – with the ears of the heart.

If the heart tells us the time has come to give up the ship, we should obey. The heart knows.

We may be tempted to abuse this dictum. “College is getting hard. I’m simply not meant to be here. My heart isn’t in it. I’ll leave school and get a job.” We should not confuse momentary challenge (even if the moment lasts a few years) with profound, heart-radiating needs. It may take significant reflection, effort, conversation, and perhaps prayer, to differentiate between the momentary and the true calling of the heart. We should be careful in our discernment.

But if our heart truly speaks to us, first in that soft whisper of piquing curiosity, as if we should ask a question we have never asked before, and it rises into a thundering hurricane of somatic expression about life, we ignore the heart at our peril.

After two broadsides, the Chesapeake and the Shannon became stuck together. British troops shot Captain Lawrence, and sailors removed him below deck. The British boarded the ship, encountering some resistance, especially among the Marines. Most of the sailors had also gone below deck; shortly they surrendered.

Despite his savage war-cry, the Chesapeake was given up. Later, repaired, it entered service for the British as HMS Chesapeake. The captured American soldiers and sailors lived.

The Commodore Perry Flag continues to fly outside my house. It reminds me – as it has for years – of the necessity of perseverance through life’s hardships, dedication to my commitments, and spirit in the face of adversity. It will, rarely, spur another sort of reflection – about the ship, where the ship is heading, and true moorings of my heart. Occasionally, the flag prompts me to ponder whether I should instead give up the ship or break the chain – to attain the life I truly want.

Thank you to my generous Foster friends for kindly reviewing and editing this essay: Jude Klinger, Shanece Grant, Clare Chika and Theresa "Sam" Houghton. Thank you!

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