“Nie daj się!” – a linguistic digression


I’m oddly “out of synch” with my body this session of my chemo infusion. I’m experiencing a variety of physical effects but can’t relate them to specific causes. I feel my body reacting but I don’t know what, precisely, it is reacting to (aside from the “generic cause”: chemo). Rather than let this incongruity take me hostage, I’m choosing instead to occupy my mind in a mental linguistic exploration. Though I’m no linguist it seems to me likely that such a digression will be more interesting than submitting to an inchoate anxiety creeping over me.

Here’s the subject of my digression. It’s about a frequently-repeated injunction of my Father’s. I don’t wish to paint him as an exclusively forward-thinking child-psychologist, but I remember my Dad’s correcting/guiding me throughout childhood and adolescence by what were mainly positive statements (something that would meet with the approval, I daresay, of today’s expert psychologists). Following are a couple examples:

(1) I would complain, “I can’t figure out this homework!”

My Dad would look over and say, cheerfully, “Of course, we can!” Let’s look at the problem. ‘Locomotive A’ leaves the station at 12:07 and reaches a speed of 85mph. ‘Locomotive B’ leaves an opposite station at 03:12…..  …What do we know about these locomotives?  What do we know about their speed?  How long is the trip….?” Eventually “we” worked out the problem of where, along the track, both trains passed each other.

Deducing the correct mathematical answer had never been been my Dad’s primary objective. The underlying lesson my Dad wanted to convey was a deeper life lesson: i.e., that it most certainly was possible for me to “figure it out”; any problem; any time; simply by applying the God-given mental tools I already possessed… myself.

(2) I was often invited to tag along with my Dad when—in the evenings after supper—he went off to his second job, a machine shop he had established with a friend. (Looking back, I realize that my Dad was providing my Mom with a substantial gift: getting me out her hair so she could have an evening of quiet with my younger Sister). But that’s another matter.

At my Dad’s Machine Shop, I might be set to work on a drill press. I’d complain, “I can’t drill a hole in this steel plate!”

My Dad would reply, “Of course you can. It’s easy if you let the drill do the work of cutting into the plate. If you pull on the handle, trying to force it, you’ll…”  SNAP!…  “Hmmm”, he’d observe, “It sounds as if you may have been pulling on the handle too hard. The drill bit has snapped.  Let me show you how to replace a broken drill bit on a drill press…”

Life lessons are beneficial and important. I have remembered the lesson, of “Yes, I can!” all my life, even though I’ve long ago forgotten, for example, how to solve quadratic equations. (Today I now know where I can quickly find out how to solve them, should I ever find myself needing to do so.)

The one statement of encouragement my Dad used, that might be considered negative, at least grammatically, was a phrase he regularly repeated to me, in all kinds of circumstances. It was the admonition, “Nie daj się!

I understood it colloquially at the time. “Nie daj się” translates to “Don’t give up!” or “Don’t give in!” Today I know from experience that translations are never exact. “Don’t give up!” is not precise. Neither is “Don’t give in!”

While noticing this imprecision, I couldn’t help realizing that the operative verb, daj is a surprising word. It is reliably translated to give… as if “giving” was somehow related to “surrender” or “capitulation”. In addition, the English left implicit, what the Polish makes explicit: the subject of the action. In English, the subject is understood, as in “Don’t [you] give up.” In Polish it is explicit: “Don’t give up yourself.”

All this made me curious. What did my Dad mean to convey? What did it really mean?


To give up (or to use its synonym “to capitulate”) carries a notion of self-defeat. In the specific context of my cancer, to “give up” would mean I had lost my will to participate in overcoming what is a lethal danger to my life. It means that I acknowledge the overwhelming superiority of my adversary, cancer, and that I have admitted the futility of continuing to defend myself against my illness.

I forget precisely where we first heard the distinction made, but Monica and I have spoken of the transition of nomenclature in the case of my cancer. Once, in our lifetimes, my cancer was described as a “terminal illness.” Today, it is more frequently described as a “chronic disease.” To “give up” confronting a terminal illness can be viewed as “coming to terms with reality”. Whereas to choose no longer to fight against merely a chronic disease is surely to surrender oneself to a tragic and sorrowful defeatism.

To give in (or to use another synonym, “to surrender”) puts the emphasis on the aggressor. In the present context, my cancer would be viewed as having completely dominated our confrontation, and that I have concluded there is no use pursuing the battle. “Giving in” acknowledges my cancer’s inherent power over me. The phrase reveals that I have actually empowered my illness and—at the same time—have diminished myself.

These two interpretations of Nie daj się (“to give up” and “to give in”) may alone be sufficient justification for my Dad to have constantly advised me to avoid either. But, translated in this way, either of these interpretations reduces his admonition to a mere rallying battle cry. Neither of these translations tackle the mystery of the word  daj, “to give”. Neither interpretation addresses what the Polish makes the explicit subject of the admonition się, (which translates as “yourself”). Left implicit, in English, the subject of the admonition is left ambiguous “don’t [you] give up”. Made explicit, in Polish, the admonition is personal and much more significant in two ways.

Nie daj się makes no doubt that what my Dad was emphasizing was my fundamental integrity. (Not [you] implied; but “yourself” specifically.) My Dad had served with distinction in the Second World War. He knew there were times when it was strategic and life-saving to admit to the superiority of the enemy in a given battle. It was tactical to be realistic about one’s dwindling resources and futile to fight from a particular position, when retreating and losing a single position in order to bolster another, might improve the overall chances of “winning the war”.

Parrying, withdrawing, bolstering, joining the battle from another vantage. Those were permitted. What was never permitted was to surrender myself, my inner integrity.

Nie daj się was the one admonition of my Dad’s that I recall him repeating often. He wanted to underscore that I myself was the subject of his admonition because I myself as the subject explains the deeper implication of the verb, daj,“to give.

Giving requires an active subject. “Don’t [you] give up” or “Don’t [you] give in” neutralizes and ambiguates the subject. In turn, it objectifies the action. The admonition is understood as addressing an activity like surrendering, capitulating or losing. When the subject is made explicit, it is me, making the decision. The question is reframed as: “When can I surrender?” My Dad’s answer is “Never to the point when it involves placing my integrity in the balance. Never.” Nie daj się! Never surrender your integrity, your own self.

At this point, I must ask my non-Christian readers some forbearance.

The central tenet of Christian faith is Jesus’ gift of salvation. There are several intertwined implications theologians have been careful to explicate. First, the only way Jesus Christ could have given His life in expiation for mankind’s transgressions is if He was a free and unencumbered actor. Jesus must be identical to us, with no spec of the divine in his DNA any different than ours. Third, Jesus must have complete free will to choose to participate in his passion and death. (Today some scientists seek to question free will at all. Such deconstructionist approaches invariably lead to dead ends.)

For Jesus’ sacrifice to be a sufficiently and satisfactorily complete gift, Jesus must do precisely what my Dad’s admonition forbids. He must freely give over His entire and complete Self… but—in Jesus’ case—not to a perceived adversary, but to His life’s only goal: “Father, not my will, but Thy will be done.”

This understanding gives a deeper meaning to my Dad’s injunction. Because it answers the natural human retort to a negative. “Nie daj się? Never? Are there no exceptions at all?” And the answer is revealed to be: “Only when you follow the example Jesus has given us to follow. Only when we can say, with Him, ‘Father, not my will, but Thy will be done.'” If I can do that, my ordeal with cancer can be transformed from an enduring, to a giving. And that makes all the difference.




In a future reflection, I would like to propose answers to some heretical questions that have been rummaging in my head, of late. “Is it possible for me ever to perceive that my cancer is, itself, a gift? Can I ever be sincerely grateful for this gift? What might that mean to me and those around me?