Finishing, Ending, Completing: What is Going On with Our Cultures Bias about the Unfinished?

Finishing, Completing, Ending Things: Humans seem to have a built in desire for The End, for a complete product, whether it involves relationships of any kind, education, career, illness, even death. “Hurry up and …already.” But we contradict ourselves constantly. There’s the race between the tortoise and the hare: slow and steady wins the race, but this is still about winning, not about the tortoise dawdling and deciding to go down another path and not bother with the race, or the hare suddenly stopping at some point when s/he is clearly the “frontrunner” and deciding instead to go down the rabbit hole and see what s/he finds there… Then there is “S/he who hesitates is lost,” versus, “Look before you leap.” All about timing, fast versus slow, and the idea that you are going somewhere definite. Maybe one of the most loaded and stressful phrases we have is the answer to “When are you going to be finished with…?” is “I don’t know.” You could add “I don’t care when, I care what…” Even writing this post. I seem to be in an endless process of mostly adding more to the beginning of it and stopping to go do something else…I am hoping the post will not really have an end, just to honor the idea that it is fine and sometimes worthwhile to let things not be finished, to drop things in the middle, at the beginning or even, what drives a lot of others crazy, getting to almost competing something and then dropping it.

I have been thinking about this topic a lot in the past week, wondering why most humans value finishing projects, coming to the end and completing things and relationships. Graduating from whatever school you started, finishing a paper or a book you are writing, finishing songs, paintings, plays, getting engaged as an end to the unclearness of “just” being in a romantic relationship with someone. Ending the “engagement” and getting on with it by having a wedding. If you separate from someone, people ask if the divorce is “finalized”. Maybe abortions are distasteful to some just because the person started something and literally “aborted”, stopped and ended it right at the beginning. Somehow people think of this as “giving up” rather than perhaps “giving in” to your intuition to leave something and go to the next thing or just dangle for a while… Attention Deficit Disorder in adults involves difficulty focusing and concentrating and thus also a lot of difficulty with finishing things “on time.” Of course it is a very real disorder and medications and other treatments can really help the individual a lot, but is there some kind of strange thing going on with our culture where our attention spans are low anyway, which is why technology can speed things up, and people have a hard time sitting quietly and just breathing or sitting quietly alone or with another person or sitting and reading for long periods of time. At the same time as the culture is constantly on the lookout for the next thing, the best smart phone, the newest social media, etc., there is a strange focus on needing things to be done and wrapped up and for product, with a loss of joy and understanding of process.

As therapists and patients in therapy, we work on slowing down, accepting ourselves as we are, and identifying things we hope to change but trying to understand that we can’t change everything at once and fast, and that growth is a slow process, healing is not linear, recovery involves lapses and regression, and we are incomplete works in progress…

Coincidentally, Brain Pickings, a site I really love, just posted something on this topic which was a nice surprise. Here is the link: It’s another book review and covers a broader range of topics connecting with my topic: the idea of timing and hurrying, which is connected to the kind of pressure people feel or put on themselves or others, as in, “When is she going to get married? She’s been living with him/her forever?” I think there is even some kind of phrase used for it, but I forgot what, and it took a few tries on Google to figure out how to find it by putting in, “what people say when they want someone to hurry up and get married already”. It turns out it’s pretty much that “Hurry Up”, indicating our culture is in some kind of rush all the time. And isn’t it funny how hypocritical we can be. You get told not to rush into it, don’t have a “shotgun wedding” and also to hurry up. This is about emotional relationships! We can’t seem to stand seeing people just be together and not be in some kind of finished product. Two people are together for years and live in separate apartments: everyone is either wondering why they don’t hurry up and move in together, or they question the validity of the relationship and say things like, “She’s just sticking with whoever it is because she is afraid of being single, looking for a better model, etc.”

So I guess I am starting my post on our prejudice about completing things with the funniest one of all: emotional relationships. As I was saying, people are uncomfortable with the “in between”, really the process versus the “finished product”. At least now there is the idea of the “domestic partnership” for any kind of couple who don’t want to get married at all or yet but do want that. If you get engaged, people ask right away if you have “set the date”. And people are getting more comfortable about the idea of the long engagement, say, one year, but not with the long engagement that has no wedding date. They use the phrase “stringing you along” and question the validity of the relationship, even though it is well known the statistics on actual marriage “ending in divorce.” What’s the big rush to get it all wrapped up into an expensive party and rings and vows exchanged. At least at present, some couples don’t “bother” to get married at all, even after having a child or more. Not to be prejudiced against weddings, I’m just focused on the stigmas and biases of choosing what is referred to as an “alternative” lifestyle. Even with sex, many people are focused on making sure there is a “happy end sting” for one or both or all parties. The phrase “happy ending” says it all. Sometimes people can have great sex with no happy endings for anyone.

It is interesting that engagements are considered to have to end with a wedding or marriage, and separations and breakups, if in marriage, are pressured to “finalize divorce”. How long are you going to be separated without getting divorced? I know a few couples who have separated and even found other partners, had children with the other partners and chose not to “bother” with a divorce, until one of the parties wants to get married. And I won’t begin to speak about how taboo the idea of being married to more than one person is frowned upon. We even have a phrase “serial monogamy” for what is seen as the norm, staying with one partner and then if it ends, you are single for a while, then find a replacement.

With breakups of relationships it is similar to a death in terms of pressure to “get on with it”. People seem to think there is a formula for how long you can be broken hearted before you move on, but we also don’t seem to approve of jumping into another relationship immediately after a breakup either. Watch out, you don’t want to be the “rebound” relationship that s/he is using to get over the last one.

In the academic realm it takes the form of things like: “Have you finished that paper yet? How many pages was it?” “Did you get a grade?” “Are you going to complete that class ever and get credit for it?” “What is your GPA?” “Why are you taking so long to graduate?” “Are you done with your year off and getting back to school?” “Why did you drop out? Isn’t that a big waste of money?”. Then, from the perspective of the individual who seems to stubbornly refuse to conform to this nice wrapped up idea of education: “I have to take the class over again.” “I got an incomplete in that class.” “No, I haven’t finished my dissertation (or thesis).” “I am taking time off from school and I don’t know when I want to go back.” And, most scandalous of all, “I spent years saying I would finish this thesis; it’s very long, but I’m really not interested in getting it finished. I decided to leave it and forget about getting the final degree; I want to do something else with my life.”

You get the idea. In school situations, whether high school, college, or graduate school programs, there is a lot of emphasis put on completing what you started. But what if you start a class and don’t write the final paper and just get an incomplete? What if you start a program and don’t get that diploma because you stop at any point in the process and do other things? There is a lot of actual opportunity that can arise from starting something and stopping in the middle in the academic sphere. Perhaps this is a time for you to take a break from whatever it is, do something else and gain a fresh perspective; perhaps, when you are doing this, the “time off” becomes your life, so you abandon the whole idea of getting the degree. Maybe you have realized by stopping in the middle or even towards the very end, with that last paper or class not done, that you don’t really want to finish, that it is not for you, or perhaps something new has arisen in its place, maybe in the academic realm or maybe something else altogether. Society has advanced somewhat to understanding the “year off” from college that many students choose in the middle or even right before graduation, but society does not understand the year off intention transforming into not going back to complete the program. People tell others, “But if you take the year off, you might not go back.” Exactly true. What is not true is that this is a “bad” thing, but again, we seem to have this prejudice against starting something and not fully completing it. Taking a break is seen as a limited time, and people want to know how long it is and that you are returning to the academic thing that you started. As I said above, not returning is just a choice, and a good choice for someone who finds something else to occupy their time with. They are actually saving a lot of time that might have been wasted in frustration with a program that no longer is right for him/her.

I take school as the first example of the bias towards completion because it is so engrained in our society. People focus not on the process but on the end result, usually an important piece of paper, the degree you earn after a lot of determination and hard work. Graduations are important milestones for people, but that doesn’t mean that choosing not to graduate and doing something else is not just as valid as getting that degree in whatever. It is easy to focus on finishing with academic things. There is the idea of getting a grade at the end of the class, and the alternative is what’s called an “incomplete”. Taking a class over again is not viewed very nicely, however, I have seen patients repeat a class and have a big transformative experience with it. You’d be surprised how much the same class and topic with the same teacher taken at a different time by the same person can be extremely different from the first time. I saw a patient struggle with a class, feeling insecure and “stupid” for not getting the concepts, the nail biting waiting for grades after tests, disappointment with perceived failure. Then she is told to take the class again. Shame but opportunity. She takes it again as a different person because she has learned and grown in between and is enjoying the class. Suddenly she makes friends with other students and studies with them or gets help from them. She doesn’t feel as bad as expected after “confessing” that she has taken the class before. And she completes it with a very good grade. This could not have happened if she had been given an F and not given an opportunity to repeat the class. I know of others who are now very successful who will tell you that they took a class three or four times before finishing it.

The dangling degree: when people, especially those who leave college or a grad school program, and take time off and then time off becomes their life. Getting the degree becomes something they will do at some time in the future. Many people in this situation feel liberated when, after time off has become time on, they decide on a decision that is against the grain but feels right for them, to abandon the pursuit of that degree and move on. This is not giving up, it is giving over to whatever life is right now for you.
“I will not graduate and don’t want to finish school. I like doing what I’m doing now or what I want to do next and will move on with my life without the degree.” This may take place after a long time off, and again, there is also possibility that a few years go by with people doubting you, and you decide to finish that last class and get the degree in the end. But it is on your terms, not our “rush rush, be successful, accomplish” society’s terms.

Even with therapy, it can be the same. If you are not a therapist and have been in therapy for many years, some people wonder what you are doing and if you are wasting time. As therapists we are forced to understand and validate an individual’s ambivalence or desire to “take a break” from therapy, usually for an unspecified amount of time. I have been surprised by people suddenly stopping but also by someone coming back years later enough that I know therapy is not a process with a fixed middle and end.

As an artist, I am familiar with the pressure to make a “finished product”. Often I sell work that is seen as “finished”, but really I have no idea whether it is finished or I just stopped doing it for a while and then someone wanted it, so I saw it as finished. I often, especially with the kind of drawings I tend to enjoy doing, repeating marks and patterns, start a lot of drawings in different notebooks or on different size paper and work on many at the same time. I may even now have perhaps 15 drawings I could be working on; I actually have no idea as I do them at home and at my studio, and I put up work on the walls that I think is finished, only to pick it up one day and keep working on it. Since I discovered the magic of drawing on paper, I tend to have a desire to fill up the paper all the way to the edges, and sometimes I decide I have finished because I have no room on the paper. Even with the sketchbook/journal/notebook I carry around in my purse at any given time, I don’t always finish them, and, though I usually start by decorating the cover, I sometimes change the cover several times. In the past few years from working on the “altered book” format, I decided with my journal/sketchbook not to do it from front to back. I turn to any random page and draw or write a list or notes, so that it gets filled up in a random order. I discovered this only recently and felt that it was delightfully fun not to do it from front to back.

Here is a personal example of something that other people get done and even publish that is taking me forever to do, and probably most people who know about it don’t believe I am going to get it done… Probably most of all myself. I am stuck on a big grand project, my graphic novel surreal memoir, which I started in the year 2000. At various points over the past 14 years, I have picked it up and worked on it and then put it down again sometimes for a few years. About a year ago I was working on it and trying to force myself to get a page done at least every 17 days so I figured I would have 100 pages done by a certain birthday. It didn’t work and now, I confess, I have actually lost most of it in my apartment. I was working on it at the studio and then bringing some pages home to work on; it was frustrating me, and then I had an odd breakthrough and then put it somewhere and lost it! I know it is somewhere safe, but I really have no idea where it is. I really don’t want it to stay lost, but I wonder if my mind is playing tricks on me. The last burst of work on it was around the time of my birthday and right after that it got put aside and then lost. I still believe I will keep doing this project but I can’t work on it now. I obviously could keep making pages which only just now occurred to me, that I may not need to find what I have already done, but I can’t find any motivation to work on it without the actual work, the 33 or so pages done thus far…

In terms of books, I last year had an idea for an art therapy book I wanted to write, but even though I got excited about it, the process seemed too daunting to even begin to try. Anyway the point is that as artists in any media, we will experience finishing some work but also not finishing or completing other work. I’m sure there are some great songs that were never finished, and with a studio filled with lots of art that has been started and not completed, I know that as an artists, I am mostly concerned with process…

It is good to complete and finish things of course. Meals get cooked and eaten. When you exercise, you have a stopping point at some time. Vacations have definite end points. Most of our daily life does involve completing things, but in the bigger picture, we are not moving along in a straight line but scribbling all over the page and that’s life.

I mentioned death and mourning, and that’s a whole post, how we rush to “get over” a death, how it does become very painful to take care of someone who is taking a long painful time to die.

I used to think of watching movies and reading books as something you could never drop in the middle no matter how bad they were. Then I met someone who walks out of movie theaters at any point during the movie if they don’t like it, and I discovered that I start a lot of books and don’t finish them. Even DVDs, which I expect to finish watching, I sometimes start and stop and decide not to see the whole thing. It’s very freeing to realize you are allowed to stop in the middle of the sentence and go somewhere else and


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