Just Quit!

The fine art of breaking free

| September-October 1996

In life, there are as many potential ways of quitting something—let’s just call them quits—as there are choices. Some we accept as intrinsically good: It’s good, for example, to quit bad habits like overeating or robbing people. But what about other kinds of quits—the ones where you stop being a slave to technology, or voting for jerks, or cowering in the face of the future? Where are the how-to manuals for those quits? Obviously, not all quits are equal, nor are they equally supported by the culture at large.

The atmosphere of our era is thick with uncertainty, which often makes life-changing quits too scary to contemplate. Part of the problem is that many of the traditional ideals we were raised on are now suspect: We’re no longer sure, for instance, whether industriousness is a virtue or a vice; or whether despair is a sin, as the Bible says, or a medicable illness, or a rational response to an insane world. This uncertainty, and the fear it provokes, has had the effect of making most of us very conservative in both our personal and our political lives. In such an atmosphere it makes sense that avoiding risks is the order of the day.

Fear also has another effect. As social theorist Frank Füredi points out, “Today the fear of taking risks is creating a society that celebrates victimhood rather than heroism. . . . The virtues held up to be followed are passivity rather than activism, safety rather than boldness. And the rather diminished individual that emerges is indulged on the grounds that, in a world awash with conditions and crises and impending catastrophe, he or she is doing a good job just by surviving.”

Quit artists elude this trap by constantly asking themselves the question “Why am I doing this?” and then acting as though their answer mattered. In their resistance to the American go-go way of life, these inspiring individualists represent a real alternative to social convention: quitting as an act of free will and independence; thrown-up hands a sign of resilience and resistance.

In the following pages, we celebrate the fine art of the quit. Journalist Robert Draper explores a raggedy community in the Texas outback called Terlingua, where quitting is a religion and the American mainstream a distant mirage.

James Evans gives you a close-up of life in Terlingua in a photo-essay.