Why Do We Keep Pressing Forward When We Really Don’t Want To?

Here’s a fun exercise for you millions of loyal readers out there in Blogville: Think of the hardest day you’ve ever had physically, the one that pushed you as close to your limits as you thought you could get, only to find that your limits could be pushed even further than you imagined.

Remember how that felt? The drudgery of having to keep pressing forward, when all you wanted to do was stop – and the mind games you played with yourself to stay the course and not give up?

I bet you remember it.

For me, it’s easy. It happened in 1979, when I was between semesters in college. I had taken on a summer job working for an independent construction/handyman contractor. The crew essentially consisted of the contractor, me, and a revolving door of One Other Guy.

This contractor, Sam, had just established his business and was willing to take on any job that came his way, no matter how dirty, crappy, hazardous, or hard. He was a farmboy of about 40 years old, country strong, who could outwork anyone – and expected the same of you.

One of the jobs he landed was at an old hotel off Interstate 85 in Charlotte. The job involved jackhammering up the hotel’s outdoor swimming pool deck. It was a full-sized hotel pool with a full-sized deck – and I was the one who won the lottery prize to jackhammer it.

Sam dropped me off at around 8 in the morning and told me, “Jackhammer the whole thing, really rip ‘er up good. All them pieces need to be small enough so they could be hauled away in a dump truck.”

This was the dead of summer, in North Carolina, down South. The sun was pouring down and the temperature probably cracked 100 Fahrenheit, with that thick Southern humidity. I spent all day jackhammering by my lonesome. The morning was not so bad because I was still full of coffee and energy, and the heat had yet to unleash its full fury.

By mid-afternoon or so, the world was melting and I was all but spent. Every muscle ached, from the bottom of my toes to my eyelids. Every sweat pore was cranked wide open. My body temperature was such that I had to hit the hotel’s public restroom about every 10 minutes just to cool down and splash water all over myself. I made quite a sight, walking into the hotel wearing only shorts and shoes, drenched in sweat. I was so dehydrated that even after I gulped water from the water fountain, I was already dehydrated again by the time I got back outside.

The worst part was knowing that the job would still require a few more hours. I was maybe three-quarters of the way through and the finish line seemed to be getting further and further away.

The jackhammer weighed 40 pounds or so, but if you held it the right way at the right angle, it would do the work for you without feeling too heavy. But by late afternoon, none of that mattered. It seemed to weigh 4,000 pounds. I was not a big boy, maybe 160 pounds. I’m guessing by the end of the workday I weighed closer to 140.

There came a point, maybe around 5 pm., when I decided I just wasn’t going to do this anymore. It was supposed to be quitting time, and I was ready to quit. I was going to put this stupidass jackhammer down, call Sam from the pay phone, tell him to come pick me up, and leave the rest of the work for tomorrow.

But I didn’t. I did not. I pressed forward. I don’t even know why. Probably fear of being fired. Or fear of giving up – and what that would say about me.

If you give up on this job you’ll give up on the next one, and the one after that, and all the jobs yet to come. Pretty soon you’ll give up on everything. You’ll give up on your responsibilities. You’ll give up on friends, family, relationships. Once you give up the first time, it becomes a habit….

I have no idea if any of that is rooted in logic. But I’m sure others have felt it, and pushed forward in similar circumstances, despite not wanting to.

I finished the work around 7 pm. When I got home I went straight to bed, no dinner, and slept right on through till 7 in the morning, when it was time to get up and go to work again.


I am not the kind of person who likes to test the limits of my endurance. I’ve never been tempted to run a marathon or climb the highest mountain or spend a winter living off the grid in the deep wild just to see if I could. Leave it to others, say I.

But I find that when I am tasked with doing something, and commit to doing it, I’ll often keep doing it long after it’s enjoyable or even rational. It doesn’t even have to be anything important like a job, either. It can be something mundane like looking for a missing pen. It’s not important – it’s just a pen, and we have dozens of them.

But I must find it! I know it was here – it was right here! So why isn’t it here now? I am going to find this pen. I will, I tell you! I will find it or perish in the process!


I have found that the mental equivalent of that draining workday all those years ago is reading a long novel that seems to get longer and longer the more you read it. I have experience with this, too much experience with this. It usually happens when I take a deep dive into what is known as “classic literature.”

As I’ve blogged about before (here and here), several years ago I made a commitment to read many of the classics, figuring it would take my mind off the depressing news of that particular period in time.

Since then, I’ve read around 20 novels that make those lists of classic lit. Among the beasts I tackled are “Moby Dick,” “Great Expectations,” and “Crime and Punishment,” all of which clock in at 500-plus pages.

Currently I’m tackling the biggest beast of them all: “Don Quixote,” by Cervantes. The version I’m reading comes in at about 980 pages. I started reading it around October. I am only now closing in on the end.

I will say this: Compared to most classic literature, “Don Quixote” is a pretty entertaining read. The title character and his long-suffering squire, Sancho Panza, keep getting themselves into the worst kind of scrapes, all because of Don Quixote’s brainless and self-indulgent attempts to prove himself a “knight errant.” The book is often hilarious, the way these two sad sacks keep getting beaten and torn and abused and humiliated on their various misadventures.

But you also admire them for pressing forward against all odds and reason. The book has a lot to say about human perseverance, hope, and endurance, and how the race is not always to the swift and strong. Embedded into the story are plenty of keen insights into class divisions – how the ruling classes manipulate those they deem lesser, and how the victims of this manipulation are almost always on the side of God. There is much to learn from the likes of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Well, I have put in a noble effort with this book. I read the first 700-odd pages in full, pressing forward, pressing ever forward, even though it became harder to keep doing so, given that the stories and adventures began to repeat themselves long after the fun became less fun.

At around page 720, I started “speed reading” – which basically means reading the first couple lines from a paragraph and then skipping ahead to the next one. It became a test of endurance, and I found that my endurance was growing weaker and weaker.

I am now about 40 pages from the end. I will read these pages diligently, a line at a time. I am determined to complete this literary classic with dignity – even though nobody else in the history of the world will care whether I do or not, and my doing so will make not a bit of difference to anyone but me.

But: I made a commitment to finishing it, and when you make a commitment, you honor it, no matter how stupid.


It so happens that I knocked out about 20 pages of “Don Quixote” last night, during one of the longest and most tortuous nights of my life. This took place in the Accident & Emergency (A&E) ward of Royal London Hospital.

The reason I was there was to have my left knee checked out. I injured the knee in a bicycle accident three-and-a-half weeks ago. I won’t go into much detail about that. I blogged about it a couple weeks ago if you want to know the details.

All I will say now is that yesterday I finally had X-rays, MRIs and CT scans done, and it turns out the knee has a fracture. This came as a surprise, considering that a couple of medical “experts” looked it over not long after the accident, and decided it must have been ligament or cartilage damage and not a fracture. No way I could pedal home after the accident with a fracture. No way I could move it this way and that with a fracture.


After the scans, the “experts” who did the scans told me I needed to get to a hospital emergency room – ASAP! Time is of the essence! That turned out to be stupid advice, but never mind.

The knee has been healing on its own and progressing just fine without the help of medical “experts” – which is what a couple of medical “experts” told me this week. I have the knee in a brace now and maybe that will be the extent of my treatment, rather than the surgery they might have recommended right after the accident.

So, the emergency department…

I was told to go there for reasons I am still not sure about. We already had scans of my knee. We already knew the problem. We already knew what we should do about it. But here in the UK, you can’t really know anything until the National Health Service puts its stamp of approval on it. And to get that stamp of approval, you have to go to a certified NHS facility and wait in the A&E.

I got there about 8 p.m. I knew I would probably have a longish wait, so I came prepared. I brought along “Don Quixote” to read. I brought a snack. I brought a portable charger for my iPhone. I took a seat off in a corner, because the emergency waiting area was crowded. Most of these people were not here for “emergencies” – the kind where you need immediate treatment. They were like me, tending to injuries or conditions that suck but are not life-threatening. So, I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I connected with the hospital Wi-Fi and loaded up my Tennis TV subscription on the iPhone. I watched the final of the Indian Wells Masters 1000 tournament between Carlos Alcaraz and Danill Medvedev. I watched Carlos take Medvedev apart in straight sets, ending Medvedev’s 19-match winning streak. That sucked up about 90 minutes or so. And then I waited.

And waited, and waited, and waited….

I remained reasonably patient until around 1 a.m., after five hours of sitting there in this filthy, grim, and miserable emergency waiting area and not having my name called.

Finally I told them, “You know, just tell me if I am going to be seen tonight. Seriously, just be honest. If you can’t see me tonight, then tell me. That’s fine, I’ll go home. But….JUST TELL ME.”

They kept telling me I would be seen, and I kept not being seen.

And here’s the thing: Something kept me in that emergency department long after I wanted to leave, and long after I began to entertain serious doubts that I would ever be seen. I figured I had come this far, so it would be a shame if I gave up now. I just had to keep pressing forward, long after logic said I really should.

They finally saw me at around 1:30 am. I didn’t leave until after 2 a.m. I was there for six-plus hours, just to get 10 minutes of actual medical advice. But I pressed forward. Why, I don’t know. There were plenty of people there with problems worse than mine, doing the same thing.

Because that’s what we do, isn’t it? We just keep pressing forward, odds be damned.


  1. I hope that knee is on the mend. Nice to know America isn’t the only country with a screwy health care system. I also dwell in the land of “gotta-get-it-done”…even if it ranks quite low on the totem pole of importance. The pen story you outlined (pun intended) resonated with me. I don’t give up tasks or projects easily, and don’t like to accept and/or settle upon the fact a task or project may be outdated, or done “as best it can be.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Bruce, the knee seems to be healing okay on its own. Hopefully that will continue. Good to know you are part of the Git ‘Er Done crowd. I wonder how that applies now, in this age of the Great Resignation.

      BTW: I have been following the Madness, despite me wondering whether I would. The difference this time is that I’m pretty much fast forwarding to the last 3 minutes of the game. If it’s a blowout then I didn’t miss much. If it’s a tight game, then I got to the important part quickly. When it hits the Elite 8 maybe I’ll watch more of the actual game. Hope you are enjoying it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Vance, watching March Madness this year has been a real rollercoaster ride. It’s nice to hear you have been checking it out! I’m enjoying it a lot – surprising outcomes and wild finishes are always welcome here. After a gruesome Day 1, my Bracket even sprang back to life! Glad the knee is doing ok as is!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. There have been some exciting finishes, as usual. Just about all my teams got bounced out, though it is fun to see Princeton advance, and I’ve always kind of liked UCLA. Be something if Bama won the NCAA basketball title just as UGA is taking over the football throne from the Tide.

      Liked by 1 person

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