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When Perseverance Becomes Perseveration
May 31, 2022
by William P. Meyers

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Perseverance is a highly lauded character quality in tales ancient and modern. One is lead to believe that America is built on perseverance, on the Little Train That Could, on "if you don't succeed at first, try, try, try again." George Washington and his army persevered against the British. Thomas Edison persevered until he hit on the right combination for the electric light bulb. In more ordinary life, tens of millions of penniless immigrants persevered their way into the middle class, or even into the upper class, if necessary over multiple generations.

Quitters are losers. There is much messaging to that effect. But are they always? How did the people who persevered with kerosene and whale oil lamps do against that electric light bulb? How about what may be the stupidest Act in the play of History, the Brits, ordered forward by the world's stupidest officer class, charging over and over towards German machine guns in World War I?

Knowing when to quit is very important. One alcoholic beverage too many and you can become road kill. If you realize you are in a rigged poker game, it is best to walk away. Knocking your head against a solid wall will just give you brain damage, it won't do anything about the wall.

The best of perseverance requires quitting. Edison did not keep trying to use the same type of filament over and over. He quite one type when he realized it would not work, and persevered with different elements until one worked. Many people have failed at one business or occupation, but the persevered in life by trying a more suitable business or occupation.

Which brings us to perseveration, a word that may be new to you. Currently it is used mainly by psychologists. It means repeating an action, over and over, because a person is unable to stop and change course. It is a dysfunction of the mind/brain. It is perseverance on autopilot, headed for a crash or at least an endless loop of failure.

It comes down to judgment. When does perseverance, a good trait, become perseveration, a form of insanity? It varies with each person and situation. It also has a lot of gray areas, when it is difficult to distinguish the two. Many of life's problems are, to put it mildly, complicated. Some progress might be made by persevering in a particular act, but is it enough progress to justify the energy spent, much less going on?

One common strategy that works well is to persevere for a reasonable time, then take some time to assess the situation. Was progress made? Was anything learned about the problem? Perhaps the tool being used should be traded for another tool, or in the case at hand there is a different angle of approach that will work better.

In addition to individuals with brain damage exhibiting perseveration, I believe we can see it as a cultural trait. We see it in politics, in religion, in criminal behavior; occasionally, in almost any aspect of society. It seems that groups are worse at quitting than individuals are. There is always someone in the group that wants to keep going, particularly if their status or paycheck depends on it.

Maintaining a faith can be a kind of perseveration. Persisting in believing falsities could be perseveration. With social issues it is easy to get confused by the complicated relationships between the world and its peoples, allowing perseverence to become perseveration.

What causes perseveration besides brain damage? Anyone can get into a rut from time to time. But certain cultures and social practices encourage people to stay in ruts. Go back to slavery. No amount of cotton picking or plowing was going to win freedom for an American slave. Some members of society, the slave masters, had an interest in slaves doing what they were told, performing the same tasks the same way year after year. This can be the case with less overt forms of social pressure or laws. It is arguable that not being allowed to quit is not the pathology known as perseveration, but it certainly can have the same effect on an individual.

Ideally, we should each have the wisdom to know when to persevere and when to quit and change course in life. Wisdom sometimes comes with age. People realize they should have persevered at something that they quit, or should have quit something that they persevered at. When confronting new situations, hopefully experience and judgment will help.

To me it is clear we should quit destroying the environment. To others, the destruction of the environment is a source of wealth, so they persevere with its destruction. So our society appears to have brain damage, and practices mass perseveration, to the point of global suicide.

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