Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Benefits of Failure

Don’t worry. I’m not about to start quoting Nietzsche about what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, or pulling stoic inspiration out from the hard lives of the March girls, or Anne Frank’s diary regarding people being truly good at heart.

Those lessons and pick-me-ups are all readily available. You can get coffee mugs and tee shirts of most of them, which is a little gross. And some days, I go to those sources of recalibration and perspective and come away clean. Bolstered by those words, I dry my eyes, pull on my big girl panties and go fiercely, joyfully, out into the world believing in and doing the great things that I love.

But not always, and in the not always times, when you’re feeling like the lowest of the low, like you’re the biggest failure that ever was, chirpy little quotations and slightly banal scraps of wisdom don’t help. In fact, they’re just irritating. I personally want to garrote whoever said “don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”

Here is the only thing I’ve ever found that works to combat the hideous, unfair curveballs that life throws at you: people who have been there, or been worse than wherever you find yourself with your broken heart, dashed hopes, lost aspiration, whatever it is that has made you feel like the world doesn’t want you to contribute your best verse.

It’s not putting your grief and fear and sadness and self-doubt in perspective that is important here. I’ve found that, on the whole, thinking about the often-tragic state of various parts of the world and society doesn’t make me feel better when I’m low. Because then I just add spoiled and self-indulgent to my list of flaws and, really, that doesn’t improve the situation. If you’ve just lost your job, say, thinking about Romanian orphanages or California crop failures is not a good pick-me up strategy. (Actually, Anne Frank’s diary does have some good wisdom on this point: she’s pissed about being in hiding, spending her adolescence locked in an annex with her family. Her mother tells her to think of people who have it worse. Anne, essentially, responds “yeah, but that doesn’t mean I have things so hot right now.” I love that.)

Because, when you’re in the shit—whatever the reason that got you there and whatever hue your hard times are—you’re just in the shit. I can’t recommend a long wallow, but I can recommend finding good, honest people who have been in similar straits. The people who know where you are, what devastation and self-recrimination and uncertainties are raking across your heart and soul. The good ones, the best ones, the kindest ones, they do not ask questions. They offer empathy, rather than advice. They ask no questions, just open their hearts and let you crawl inside. In doing so, you know you are not alone and you remember that, although the slings and arrows can find you, so can the sweetness and the love. That sometimes, life is just hard. And, while your grief and fear and messy response to that truth is utterly personal, often the cause is not. 

The scariest truth about the universe rejecting your best effort and intent is feeling passed by, as if you are somehow not “enough.” And, when you’ve given yourself to something, coming up short eviscerates your sense of self.

Aside from heartbreak, which is as unique as it is universal in its horrific catalyst for feelings of failure and doubt, the biggest sense of failure I see my dear ones grapple with is finding a means of feeding themselves and using their brains and hearts. Our job market and economy and education system are failing us all and, yet, we blame ourselves.

Far too many brilliant people I know and love are finding themselves flailing in the current job market on all levels and in too many fields. I know this kind of failure-feeling too well. I spent last winter applying to scores of jobs in the environmental-social justice field that I went to college and graduate school for. And I waitressed, part-time, all winter. It was hard and awful to feel so ignored and as if the world didn’t want what I most dearly long to give. All of the passion I have for trying to make little corners of the world better was always the wrong color for what the job market wanted. It is a hard and bitter pill to swallow again and again, to receive a rejection and then brightly return to the search as if your heart were still whole and hopeful. Fielding calls from my student loan officers at this time was particularly raw—a reminder that I was failing to uphold my end of an educational bargain from a different world.

I cried a lot. And, then, with the help of my incredible support network of dear people, I began to see that I wasn’t the failure. It is a violently evil system, the job market and economy. I am particularly disgusted by the ways in which the education system has an utterly unholy alliance with the economic system. I wouldn’t say that I’m exactly winning at the employment sector of my life, but I have learned to temper my expectations, and to as much as I can, step away from the evil parts of the system. The most truly evil piece is the idea culturally implanted in our brains that our self-worth is the same as our salary. As one of my brilliant sisters reminded me last winter: “They will never pay you what you are worth.” Where I am now, I don’t think I’d much like my self-worth to be counted up at all in the same nasty system that makes so many of us doubt our worth and efforts. It is not kind. To be kind to ourselves, I think we must accept that the system is a bully and distance our hearts from it.

We are all going to fail. We'll lose jobs, misplace love, try our best and be a little short. It’s part of life. When I learned to ski, the mantra was “if you’re not falling, you’re not learning.” I had numerous snow-scoured welts and deep plum bruises. But I learned. And, then, whenever I’ve got the chance since, I’ve tried to help others ski. I encourage trying so hard you must fall. And then I pick them up.

That is the benefit of failure. After we ourselves have fallen and eventually come back, we have the choice, the power, to open our hearts to the newly fallen. The benefit of failure is that you can become kinder. Reach out, say you’ve been there too, and let the heartbroken cry about the unfair world. What we fear most is to be alone and unloved, this is the deep doubt that unfairness sows. Be kind and those fears begin to evaporate as the ghostly untruths they are.

And, that undercurrent of kindness and empathy at failures, this is what will erode the nasty systems and narrow definitions of success that cause us such doubt. This is how we win. 

(Image is from the Zen Ox-herding pictures. The little kid is asking where wisdom might be found and the old man is saying "I don't know for you, but I found it over there...".)

No comments:

Post a Comment