The political news reminds us of the wisdom of graceful exits. Businesses need succession plans. Individuals ought to prepare advance medical directives. It is wise to learn to depart with dignity. That means not clinging or lingering until the bitter end.
In show business they say, “leave them wanting more.” It is better for the show to end with an empty spotlight than to offer another encore to a thinning crowd. How you exit determines how you are remembered.
Knowing when to quit requires modesty, self-knowledge, and self-control. Those who refuse to leave are greedy, narcissistic, and embarrassing. The aging quarterback hanging on for another season is sad. The scandal-ridden bureaucrat who refuses to resign lacks a sense of shame. And the autocrat who clings to power is dangerous.
Sages and saints have extolled the virtue of finishing well. Saint Paul said, “the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” Paul expresses a kind of heroic resignation. Do your best. Stay strong. And when the day is done, put out the light.
Socrates said something similar. When he was sentenced to death, Socrates responded calmly and with dignity. He said simply, “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways.” He didn’t rant or rave. Nor did he challenge the legitimacy of the jury’s vote.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus pictured life as a naval cruise. Sometimes your ship visits port and you get shore leave. But when the captain says it’s time to sail, you must depart. You can board the ship in a dignified manner. Or you can be bound like a sheep and thrown on board. The choice of a noble departure is up to you.
Those who cling often have a delusional self-image that is out of touch with reality. Some people think they are the life of the party. Others think they are the smartest person in the room. Obnoxious boors ignore the yawns and eye-rolls of the crowd. They are blind to the feedback of the world.
Clingers often view themselves as irreplaceable and indispensable. “She can’t live without me,” the clingy boyfriend says. “They’ll never win without me,” the grizzled quarterback tells himself. And the aging diva says, “my audience needs me.”
This is rationalization and projection. The washed-up quarterback can’t imagine life without the team. The clingy boyfriend can’t live without her. And the aging diva needs the adoring crowd.
In reality, everyone can be replaced. In fact, there are usually dozens of talented people waiting in the wings. One of the problems of those who cling is that they don’t make room for other talent to shine.
Good parents, coaches, and mentors know when to get out of the way. The same is true of good bosses. A great pleasure of coaching and parenting occurs when you realize that the kids are alright without you. If you’ve done your job, you are no longer necessary.
Clinginess can be easily confused with loyalty and tenacity. But loyalty and tenacity require moderation. Too much loyalty is blind allegiance. An excess of tenacity is mule-headed stubbornness. The challenge of life is to learn to hold tightly until the moment when it is wise to let go.
Benjamin Franklin said that fish and houseguests start to stink after a few days. But we lose track of the time. Clueless guests don’t notice that the party is over and the hosts are dozing off. We often fail to notice that the expiration date has passed until the stench is overwhelming.
We need to learn to read the crowd. When the audience starts yawning, it’s time to wrap things up. When the crowd is grumbling and groaning, it is already too late. It is better to leave early than to leave a lingering stench.
We also need to keep better track of time and to learn modesty. Our days are numbered. We each play only a minor part in the drama of the world. Our role is important but limited. Our time on the stage is short. Make the most of it. And then depart with dignity.