Harriet Tubman, the American abolitionist and activist, said it before I did: “Don’t ever stop. Keep going.” Tubman was speaking to escaped slaves she was helping get to the North via the Underground Railroad. “If you want a taste of freedom, keep going,” she said. Tubman had escaped from slavery herself: She knew.
“Keep going” is one of those rare pieces of wisdom (like “This too shall pass”) that applies equally whether things are going badly or going well.
When things are going badly, keep going.
What I mean by “keep going” sometimes means keeping up the effort you’re already making: Many situations call for persistence and faith. But keep that other well-known quotation in mind, too: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Probably most often, “keep going” means keep moving—keep trying different things, changing it up, experimenting. Very often, the key to success has to be jiggled for quite a while before it will turn. So keep jiggling. If jiggling doesn’t work, try a different key. If that doesn’t work, try a different door. If that doesn’t work, maybe try an ax. I don’t know, but you see what I’m saying.
When you don’t know what to do, keep going.
Sometimes you don’t know what to do—and “keep going” still applies. Sometimes to keep going is all that really matters. Sometimes it’s all you can do: just to do something.
One foot in front of the other, until the scenery changes.
If you’re demoralized and demotivated, it’s the best advice in the world. Just doing something, anything, will keep your situation and your attitude from congealing and ossifying into a dreadful dead end.
It can be really hard. I know. I understand. But what I’m saying is, if you don’t change something, then nothing’s going to change.
Even if you had no other pieces of wisdom at your disposal, this one, “keep going,” would get you there. You’d figure out how, sooner or later.
When you’re at a dead end—keep going.
If you think you’ve reached a dead end, it’s also the best advice you can get. There’ve been many times I thought I’d blown it, I was stuck, painted myself into a corner. At 18, when I dropped out of college before the end of my first semester. At 44, when I saw no way out of a bad marriage. A few years later, when I had no money at all, was living in my truck, and the only work I could find was cooking in a Mexican restaurant in Carrizozo, New Mexico.
If I’d accepted those as the dead ends they seemed to be, that’s what they would have become. Instead, through some gut instinct, I kept moving. I went to work as a temp. I walked out of the marriage. I drove away from Carrizozo. All of that happened even though I had no effing idea what was going to come next.
Within a few years of quitting college, I became a copy editor, which didn’t require academic credentials. After I left the marriage, it was rough for a while, but now I’m so, so glad I did. And when I dumped that icky job, a few weeks later I found a better one, serving in a fancy French restaurant in Santa Fe.
When I moved on from each situation, I could not have known what was going to happen next. All I knew was that what I had was not good enough. I started getting to “good enough” (and better!) by continuing to move toward it.
Stepping-stones. One thing leads to another, but only if you keep going.
(And if you’re in a true, genuine, certified dead end? Darn it, I still say keep going, because what else can you do? In which case it means moving through the situation as best you can. With flexibility, creativity, and grace, if that’s possible. And I’m so sorry. Please take good care of yourself.)
The magic of movement
Sometimes it’s only by continuing to make adjustments to your effort, your methods, your environment, your goals—whatever aspects matter and are adjustable—that you can hit on a combination that works. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to do something that seemed impossible, and just by sheer mulish persistence, and continuing to try different permutations and possibilities, I finally found something that worked.
Movement has its own grace and magic. One time, visiting the Puerto Rican island of Culebra, it was after dark when my boyfriend and I started to ride our bicycles back from town to our campsite on the beach. The night had been dark to begin with, but then we entered a hilly, forested area, and it turned absolutely pitch black. I didn’t have a working light on my bike, and my boyfriend took off ahead of me without realizing I couldn’t see. What happened next amazes me to this day. I didn’t want to be left behind, so I maintained my speed and just kept going. Somehow, maybe by subliminally sensing the camber of the road, I managed to stay on the pavement and not ride off into the trees. I got to the campsite safely, and I remember it as one of the most phenomenal experiences of my life.
Also, remember the power of momentum. As in, you can leap farther if you get a running start.
So I think that famous Goethe quote about boldness applies here as well. Movement has “genius, power, and magic in it.”
When things are going well, keep moving.
I don’t mean exhaust yourself. Enjoy your accomplishments, feel gratitude for what you’ve attained, and get the rest you need, please. And if you’ve come to a place in your life that you like a lot, by all means, hang out there as long as you want.
What I mean is, know with joyful certainty that there’s always more.
I knew a microbiologist once who, one day, couldn’t help spilling over about something he’d just noticed. He’d been doing research into some tiny aspect of cell structure (if I remember correctly), and his team decided to ask a very specific question. I’m sorry I can’t remember the specific item of knowledge—I just remember how delighted he was when he explained that they had found the answer—and that answer itself opened up dozens more questions to look into. He said, it’s as if, whatever you want to pursue, you can do it endlessly. As if the universe is structured to let us be curious, to learn more and more about any subject, for as long as we want to. And the joy of that never has to end.
I believe that. Endless.
If you continue to move forward, you won’t be disappointed. There’s plenty of universe around here, and it’s only by setting out into it that we’ll find out what’s in it. More, I suspect, than we have any inkling.
Never underestimate what’s possible.
So please: Keep going.
As Patricia Graynamore tells Joe Banks in Joe Versus the Volcano: “Your whole life is ahead of you.”
Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She currently lives on Santa Maria island in the Azores.