The possibility of writing about some subjects is exciting enough to keep me motivated until the end of thing. Failure is not one of those subjects. I did not want to write this post, but the universe, or perhaps its God, would not let me forget about it.
From past experience, I’ve learned that it is best not to fight these things. In Vegas, the odds favor the dealer; in the cosmos the odds favor the guiding will of Providence, whether you like it or not. I don’t always like it, but it is presumptuous of me, is it not, to assume that the universe should unfold exactly as I expect.
Yes, there is more metaphysical talk ahead. Consider yourself warned. In case you haven’t figured this out by now, I don’t write for everyone, and perhaps you would be better served by watching Entertainment Tonight or by reading Seven Secret Steps Toward Infinite Profitability or something along those lines. You could always just read another article on the amazing marketing potential of Twitter, if you prefer.
For those of you still around, thank you for staying. Now onward to more metaphysics. I am not one of those people who proclaims that success or failure is entirely up to fate. Our future is in many ways what we make it, and yet the turtle can work as hard he wishes, he can watch all the inspirational videos in the world, and read all the textbooks, but he will never fly with the same gracefulness of an eagle. Like our friend the turtle, we cannot necessarily become anything we want to be, but we can live up to or fall short of the potential we’ve been given. In other words, fate and free will both have a hand in our successes and failures.
"Faded glory" from flickr.com/jamesjordan
Let me elaborate. Sometimes repeated failure can be a good clue that tells us to put our energies elsewhere. In other cases, it’s just a sign that we aren’t trying hard enough. Fail enough times at something and you’ll discover that it can be tricky to distinguish between these two categories. When you get to that point, maybe it’ll help if you take note of the circumstances that have or have not worked out in your favor.
Have you ever gotten assistance in your endeavors, where something worked out unexpectedly at just the right moment? That could be God whispering in your ear to persevere. On the other hand if the doors you keep fighting to open swing shut with uncanny consistency, perhaps you should rethink your endeavors. Or maybe not. You have to make that call for yourself.
The idea for this post first came when I saw this commercial from Honda about failing. I was intrigued that a car company took such a strong position on the subject. The Honda employees being interviewed not only mentioned specific failures that Honda experienced, but they also gave fairly recent examples, as late as 1994. It’s a bold move; someone could say to themselves, well if Honda made engines that had problems at one point, then I don’t want to buy from them ever again. But, that person would be a fool.
Everyone who does anything worth doing makes mistakes at some point, so wouldn’t you rather buy from a company that publicly acknowledges those mistakes and then works to correct them? I would. But all too often our success-worshipping world strives to sanitize failure out of our awareness. That’s one reason why it’s politically more appealing to shield others from the consequences of their failures. Unfortunately, that kind of thing just keeps the AIG fat cats of the world healthy enough to be rapacious.
In our haste to protect others from tragedy we sometimes forget that allowing others to confront their own failures can be the most considerate course of action. Enough unsheltered failure can cause others to re-evaluate their pursuits and to redirect their energies toward areas where they can better succeed.
Not sold on failure yet? Well here’s something else to consider: A free society is one in which its citizens can openly discuss the perceived failures of themselves and their leaders. It is by no means historically inevitable that a person can choose the kind of work that he or she does. With the freedom to choose your work comes the freedom to evaluate whether your occupation provides the best rewards for your abilities and whether you’ve fully developed those abilities. Slaves do not have the luxury of considering such things.
"oasis" from flickr.com/photos/jonnelson
Do you think that former President Bush was an unconditional failure? (I don’t.) Because we are still a free people in the United States, you can, if you wish, declare that he was the world’s biggest failure and a Nazi, and you could do so in the most juvenile way imaginable without fearing for your life. How odd that the citizens of Nazi Germany did not have such freedoms. But since we’re speaking of dictators, when was the last time you heard Kim Jong-il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hugo Chávez talk about the failures of their countries? It’s been a while, I think. In comparison, both President Bush and President Obama have, in the past few months, acknowledged that their country and even their respective administrations could have made better decisions about some things.
All of these points that I’ve made about failure are not the reasons I was dreading this subject. Here’s the thing, the topic of failure actually hits a little too close to home. As I write, a short video project I’ve been developing for a few weeks now stands a good chance of crumbling into nothingness, due to factors outside of my control. If that happens then the project will become one more resident in the expanding graveyard of my unsuccessful endeavors.
I recall those failed creative projects and think, “I had such high hopes for that little guy, and I saw so much of myself in you, and you, you had so much potential that I’d smile when thinking of you.” I imagine that’s not too different from what parents feel when they lose a child prematurely. And yet, I am determined to persevere through another failure if a failure it becomes. I must. It’s already hard enough to keep my self-destructive tendencies in check, and giving up on my creative aspirations would only fuel the flames.
My work is not the only aspect of my life where failure resonates. Too many of my relationships have whithered away in a similar manner. You see, I’m not easy person to get to know. I long for deep, meaningful relationships and a sense of community, and yet I do everything I can to keep people at a comfortable distance. Shallow jokes are good for that sort of thing. So too are metaphysical rhetoric and political commentary.
For those of you keeping score, I used all those tricks in this post. It was the only way I could persuade myself to write this. I take comfort in knowing that most readers will not get this far. But the possibility that even a few of you will read this is a little unnerving. How can I possibly keep a safe distance now that I’ve revealed so many of my secrets?
"A gift of golden light" from flickr.com/photosan0
There is the beauty of it, though. As transparency grows, it becomes harder to avoid the difficult subjects, the very things that stand in the way of real progress. For me, less wiggle room might mean that I eventually learn to form more sincere, more radiant relationships as I move closer to wholeness. But to play the devil’s advocate for a moment, because even the devil should have his day in court, there is also the possibility that such openness could leave me vulnerable to more heartache, the very thing that could drive me to despair and toward a purposeless, dissolute life governed by booze and whores. I do not favor such an outcome, but I don’t think it is an entirely impossible scenario.
That kind of life would be the ultimate failure, and I want to do what I can to defend myself against it. It helps when I can find God’s presence in the quiet beauty of the moment. In those all too rare moments, I discover a sense of harmony and purpose that has been otherwise absent from my life. It is a kind of self-correcting presence; In those moments, I do what I should just because of that presence reaching out through time with love. And yet, most of the time that presence is hard for me to see. My perception is distorted by the ugly stains of lust, anger, and anguish in me and by the stupid, banal and vicious aspects of our material world.
My dad helped to shape one of the more contorted stains. We got mad at each other for some inconsequential reason that I can’t even remember, and in a moment of anger he called me a failure. He did not mean that had I failed at a recent endeavor but that failure was a defining quality of who I was. The words did not sting as much as the raw honesty they conveyed. We were celebrating my birthday that day, and he told me that right before we were going to bring out the cake. Nice timing Dad. My response was to tell him that he was going to die soon, and that I wouldn’t cry at his funeral.
He didn’t live to see my next birthday. He died two years ago from this week. I did cry, but at the funeral, I was more restrained. Still I did cry even then, in spite of what I told him. We had talked a few more times after that big argument, but he never convinced me that he didn’t mean what he said, even though he apologized, as did I.
His words haunted me for a while. Last year, around this time, I did something I’m now ashamed of doing, partly out of anger at him, at the world, and at God, mostly at God. At that point in my life, though, I was willing to do anything to prove to myself and to him that I wasn’t a failure, even if that meant doing something self-destructive. That’s what a sense of failure can do if you don’t confront it.
"Marsden" from flickr.com/sovietuk
I have (mostly) forgiven my Dad for what he said. I’ve said my share of hurtful things too, and he was a well-intentioned, but not an entirely good man, who dedicated his life to helping others battle cancer. That’s admirable enough. As is often the case with me, he did not intend the harm that he caused, and he said what he did in part because he couldn’t quite come to terms with his own personal frustrations.
I could never have written this last year, but God is good (at least that’s what I believe most of the time). He’s brought me little moments that helped to get me to this point. Here’s an example:on Monday afternoon, when I first started writing this post, I discovered that the May 2009 edition of Reader’s Digest had arrived in the mailbox. It featured a story about several people who bouncing back from failure in an inspiring way. One of the people profiled was a lady in Norfolk, Virginia who failed to save someone’s life in the past, but that experience helped her save someone’s life a few years later.
The naval base in Norfolk, Virginia was the reason my family first came to Virginia, so the story about the Norfolk lady had a special significance to me. I’ll be honest, I thought about deleting this post a few times, but the Reader’s Digest story was one of the reasons that I didn’t. It made me think that maybe one day something good could also come from my devastating failures and heartaches. Wishful thinking perhaps, but it made an impact at the time.
It’s an interesting coincidence that the magazine would come on the day that I was preparing to write this and that it would have a moving story from a lady in Norfolk and that I unintentionally ended up writing this post on the week of my Dad’s death. As it turns out, tomorrow is also the first day of Passover, and again that wasn’t something I planned. Maybe there is some deeper significance to those coincidences, maybe not.
In any case, it’s encouraging that I am now at a point where I can write about something that was once so hard for me to acknowledge even to myself, namely that I sometimes assume that my value as a person is defined entirely by my professional accomplishments or the lack thereof. With that kind of thinking, it is tough not to conclude that I don’t matter when my world is overflowing with failure. But anyone who is loved does matter, and I do believe we are all at least loved by God.
My faith takes for granted that everyone will fail at some point and that those failures can’t truly be set right without God’s involvement. That involvement is not always what I expect or want, but it is there, as best as I can tell.
"Singapore White" from flickr.com/dinesh_valke
I’d like to end this messy, meandering post with a quote that caught my attention from the Reader’s Digest story that I’ve been referencing: “You might never fail on the scale I did. But it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.” The author of the quote: J.K. Rawling. Here’s to facing failure and to living life with a little less caution.
Happy Passover and Happy Easter everyone!