Today, my son attempted to overcome one of his biggest fears… and failed. However, I am proud of this young man because he tried to overcome something that once had a very traumatic effect on him. He had an opportunity to contribute to our community even though it meant facing his fear, but was turned away when he went pale and started hyperventilating. He came home feeling defeated, while I felt immensely proud that he had taken steps to stand up to his fear and face it head on.
Another person dear to my heart inadvertantly overlooked one step in a long, tenuous process in the course of their work, and the project in question has been delayed for a short period of time. This person, who is customarily meticulous about their work, has been suffering severe embarrassment and disappointment in themselves due to the oversight, which under the particular circumstances, is completely understandable; yet they are having difficulty giving themselves the same consideration they are so quick to give others. [Update: this situation is working out beautifully].
I myself have failed so often that I’ve swung the pendulum from perfectionism to apathy and back in my attempts to avoid further failure. I certainly know a lot more about failure than I do about success, which is precisely why I am qualified to write about it. I’ve had plenty of both, and have at times, followed success with a lapse. Each time, I have learned something valuable; I have learned about courage, faith, defeat, dignity, respect, perseverance, and of course, humilty.
Today, I was able to witness these in my friend and my son, and extrapolate answers to some of the questions that lurk in my mind on sleepless nights. But I digress…
“Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better”… a phrase by Samuel Beckett, and a book title by one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chödrön, which encompasses the concept of how we can transform our failures into the life we want and engage with the unknown in our lives and world as a path to our own fulfillment. Failure is a part of the learning process, but sometimes the consequences of failure steer us into behavioral patterns of anxiety, perfectionism, self-deprecation, and even apathy. We learn these early in childhood, when we are either punished by others for our failures or by the sometimes severe natural consequences of our endeavors and choices. Another contemporary phrase that comes to mind is “The Master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried” (Steve McCranie). These tidbits of wisdom bring me a lot of peace, because I have experienced all sides of this coin.
As I watch so many people, including myself, attempt and manage to navigate the seemingly impossible in life, I feel compelled to share with you that my own experience is that when we don’t try, we pay a terrible price for their our apathy, as it shreds what self-esteem a person may have and is often replaced over time with less savory personality traits such as narcissism, extreme impatience, self-absorption, addictive behaviors, impertinence, and perpetual victimization. Over-compensation is the antithesis of apathy, but can easily lead to any or all of the same traits. The good news is that most people reside somewhere in between these extremes, leaning a little more toward one side than the other. However, the underlying feelings that drive this are universal; a desire to be seen as successful, independent, and worthy people. The more attached we are to our pride, the harder the fall and the worse our experience.
So what do we do with this? How do we use our failure to ultimately succeed? Most people would agree that learning from our mistakes so that we don’t repeat them is the most direct route to success, and I certainly don’t argue with that idea. However, many of us find ourselves facing the same issues and failures over and over again before we learn from them. We fail to learn when we resist adversity, which is a perfectly natural and human thing to do. When we engage with the ideas, actions, and people that we fear with compassion, we find that adversity comes to it’s own natural conclusion. Engaging with compassion is not about confronting it; it is a way of yielding and allowing ourselves to observe the momentum of whatever we are facing and give it space it to finish it’s course. In doing so, we find that the adversarial issue becomes less volatile and more likely to self-correct than if we were to apply force.
Easier said than done.
Not a problem. The answer lies in practice, which implies some level of failure until something is mastered. It is a practice that must be cultivated daily by offering ourselves the same compassion and grace that we would offer to others. It is allowing ourselves to fully feel the emotions that arise without acting on them beyond allowing our tears and seeking counsel when necessary. It is breathing through the most difficult moments while keeping our goal in our mind’s eye. It is paying attention to the thoughts that become a looping soundtrack and gently, firmly, and persistently thanking them for their input and moving forward in search of truth. It is being authentic in our disappointment as well as our joy. It is continuing to seek the quintessential nature of our experience and allow contrast to harmonize with our desire for simplicity, and in doing so, finding that success itself is impermanent when we apply it to a specific goal or outcome, and that we can thrive in all aspects of the journey, whether we reach our destination or not.