The Happiness of Failure
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
“’Failure’ is a word. You can apply it like a blanket word or like one square on a much larger quilt.”
The most inspiring implication of our failures is that we tried. We tried to make marriages work, we tried to succeed in a startup business, we tried to save our children from dying of a drug overdose, we tried to pass a test, we tried to win a race, we tried to get a raise, we tried to defend a client wrongly accused, we tried to win a construction bid, we tried to make a friend laugh, we tried to get into a popular movie, we tried to recreate a new recipe, we tried to make our hair stop standing on end. . .you get the point. In our lives we will make many many efforts on behalf of hugely significant outcomes as well as thousands and thousands of everyday objectives. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we fail; sometimes we fail, fail, fail and then succeed, and sometimes the project is larger than we could possibly accomplish as a single human being, and we observe through our humble, isolated failing that we need a partner, a team, a tribe, or a larger community to make this thing happen. But our efforts are worthy and so are the failures attached to them.
The verb forms of the word, ’fail,’ as in, “I failed,” underline the notion that we have taken action to make our wants, our desires, our dreams and our responsibilities materialize as we imagine them. It is important, from a psychological perspective to understand that ‘failure,’ as a character-assassinating adjective, has no truth to it. It’s simply not possible for a living human being to be a failure, 100%, through and through. Yet this is a common and sadly habitual thought –“I am a failure,”–that runs through many people’s minds when confronted with the disappointment of failing to achieve some particular end, small or large. Because our thoughts have such power to magnetize bodily sensations and emotions, the thought, “I am a failure,” produces lethargy, depression, a lack of motivation, reduction in the ability to see options and opportunities in the future. In short, from the perspective of assessing oneself to be a failure, the forecast looks endlessly gloomy.
Most “failures” in relationship occur at the level of understanding one another unharmoniously. We all carry around scripts or stories that describe, to ourselves, what goes on in our experience of another person, or of our relationship with that person. Sometimes these stories in our heads harmonize with the other person’s story and sometimes they do not. Take, as an example, Mary’s interpretation of Bob’s silence as disapproval, when in Bob’s mind he wants to take the necessary time to reflect carefully on Mary’s request. Billy thinks Sandra is controlling and possessive while he texts flirtatious messages to his secretary at work. Inside Sandra the story is drastically different: She feels exhausted from having to monitor Billy, whom she does not trust. For another example, Donna thinks her father hates her because he is so strict. Donna’s father thinks he will shirk his responsibilities if he does not prompt in her the discipline and high standards necessary to succeed in school and a job beyond. So we think of our relationships as failures when our interpretations and stories about the others’ motives sadden, disappoint, frustrate or anger us. Many divorces, though certainly not all, occur as a result of huge misunderstandings, rather than huge malice.
Sometimes we misunderstand situations because we remain in psychological denial of something difficult. In my own life I had felt angry at my mother for “not trying” to eat or drink more or to ambulate more, when it turned out that she truly faced incapacity on several levels. When I confronted my own denial about her compromised health, I found that my anger and frustration with her melted away, almost instantaneously, and in its stead I felt sadness, and the fear of possible impending loss. I also had much more patience with her; my heart open to hearing about her own fear and disappointment with losses in functioning.
Tania “failed” to make her husband into the man she wanted. Her story: “If I love him enough and get him to see that he needs to spend more time with us and open up more emotionally with me, then life will be good.” It does not generally work out well when one partner makes of the other one a project. It seems difficult to look within ourselves for the seeds of our discontent—whether it be a kind of divine restlessness and relational ambition, or our own neediness—instead of seeing our partners as flawed. We can help our partners and our partners can help us with kindness, patience, understanding, encouragement and love. But we cannot literally make our partners happy or content nor can they do the same for us. We author the stories of our own happiness, because only we own our capacity to feel happiness with our loved ones, or in the arrival of sun appearing in the window, or simply for the arrival of another day.
When we realize that most of our so-called failures really stem from our dark stories, we can feel happier and more liberated because we can rewrite our narratives: see more of the beauty in ourselves and our partners. If we extend to others the benefit of the doubt, then at least we are making positive assumptions that they are trying their best or that their intentions are generally well meaning.
Even in the details of interpersonal encounters, we often accuse ourselves of failures. Take Samantha, who worried that she had failed to win the interest of a young man she had met at memorial benefit. She asked me, and herself, “Was it too forward to text him?” “Did he believe my jokester sister that I was a jailbird?” “When he invited me to the club afterwards should I have come alone and not brought my sister with me?” Samantha constantly asked if she had “done something wrong.” Her underlying story involved the notion that relationships are fragile. They can be made or broken based upon small interactions. She had not experienced a sense of resiliency in past relationships so continued to perpetuate the story of easily broken bonds, and blamed herself. Over time Samantha developed a more resilient narrative. All possibilities remain open when you meet someone new. Thinking about herself as an explorer of new relationship possibilities rather than as a success or failure opened up a whole new set of feelings, like excitement, curiosity, and openness.
Many stories of failures have to do with small “failures” taken out of context. I just went to an amazing wedding in the woods a couple of weekends ago. The joyful event occurred outdoors with the forecast of rain in the evening. The caterers had “broken up” with the couple two weeks earlier, and this required some intense scampering to prepare food for one hundred and twenty guests on short notice. But with the joy of participant-attendees singing and dancing the couple toward their journey in marriage with one another, and the loveliness of the environment, the drinks and food and soulful blessings, these little failures disappeared like tiny tears in the gorgeous fabric of the ceremonious and loving event, even when, under a rustic pavilion, we gathered as rain fell on the roof, bringing some water to the drought-ridden area.
“Nerves that fire together wire together” and most people find “failure” a word whose meanings are embedded within a matrix of other thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations like: (Thoughts) Inadequate, unworthy, incapable, stupid, loser, not talented, unlovable, ugly, etc. And (Feelings) depressed, sad, humiliated, ashamed, afraid, anxious, avoidant, etc. And (Body sensations) Heavy, sodden, mincing, pinched, headachy, tense, retreating, etc.
The idea is to unpin “failure” from this matrix and rewire it into another matrix like: “Oh well, you win some, you lose some.” “I’m happy with what I did do.” “That was no big deal.” “I learned something from that.” “There’s a next time.” “I can do better.” “That job was bigger than me.” “I did my best.” “At least I made some positive impact.” “I think this was bound to happen anyway.” And so forth.
The body then finds itself freed from the emotional baggage carried in the first matrix. The heart is lighter. One feels there are other opportunities, relationships, jobs, chances, out there in this big wide universe. The new wiring—new neurons firing and wiring together in a different loop—reduces the suffocating and anxiety producing interpretations and meanings formerly associated with failure and with the word, “failure.”
I adore words, but they are both elaborating and limiting. When we think of “failure” in its blanketing sense, we ignore the valiance of our efforts, as well as the larger contexts in which we have “failed” a small part of the over all. Worst, we assign to our humanness an overarching, negative identifier.
When we bravely face our possibilities, they will include failures as well as successes. And most failures . . .”become links in the chain of our success.” (Florence Scovell Shin) Whether we assess our actions as succeeding and failure, we ourselves are never failures, only beautifully and exhilaratingly particular.
Guest saddle: Think of something you previously relegated as a personal failure. How else might you look at it? How has that so-called failure helped you to grow, helped you to think about something from a different perspective, or even been transformative in terms of future intentions, goals, or visions?