I wasn’t sure what to focus on this month with my One Word (CONNECT). But the theme of failure kept surfacing — not something I generally want to connect with, though sometimes it is unavoidable. And sometimes, much as I do not want to acknowledge it, it is a gift.
I was talking with a friend who is also a biography counselor, telling her about a time I went through a major failure in my life. Although this was more than twenty years ago, it still rankles. The feelings of hurt and rejection and being judged and excluded still come up whenever I think of that event, although they are not so all-consuming as they were then. I can breathe and think of other things, and yet is clear something is not resolved for me.
So I arranged a time to talk it through again, hoping I might gain some closure. And this time I realized that although I had always focused on my failure to come up to other people’s standards, those people, teachers of mine, had also failed. They had failed to communicate with me in a respectful way that preserved our relationship. And though I’d berated and blamed myself for not being strong enough for making the communication happen, that was not my job. They failed, in this regard.
Somehow, just realizing that was enough. I don’t need to force them to admit their failure, or to compensate me in any way. We have all failed, and we are all human. I no longer hold it against them, even as I see it clearly now for the first time. This heals the split between us that came about when we were divided against each other as judging teacher and unsatisfactory student. We’re back on the same level now, and connection is possible.
The benefit of being twenty years on is that I know there is life after failure. I’m beginning to think it may be the only true life, the only way we can be free. If we are bound to always be successful, then we are prisoners of success. Failure liberates us to imagine other ways to be, different than the picture we may have held or received from others. It is the crucible of invention.
That time of failure in my life was a time when things took a very different direction than I had expected or hoped. Looking back, I see that although it took time to develop and grow, this alternate direction was better than the idea I had in my limited, immature mind. There can be a wisdom in our failures that moves us forward, strange though it may seem. They are not only a judgment on our past, but a call into a future we would never conceive without them.
Another thing I notice is that failure is never total. (Otherwise, obviously, I would not be here.) There is always, always a remnant, something left to rebuild with, maybe a strength we had not realized we had, maybe a capacity that needs to be developed. And I think that recognizing and working with those remnants, however insignificant they seem, is a human talent that we need to appreciate much more. We have big dreams of conquering space, creating peace on earth, ending illness and suffering, and saving the planet, and yet maybe what we can really do best of all is to find what is left from the wreckage of our hopes, and cultivate and grow it, again and again and again.
Human freedom consists in knowing why we do what we do. And how can we know that, unless we know the consequences of choosing the wrong path? To gain this knowledge, we need to fail. And not to deny and forget our failures, but to look at them, steadfastly and honestly, and learn from them.
So I dedicate this month to connecting with failure. I am fortunate to have ample opportunities in my life to do so! Where once I felt each failure was a black hole that would swallow and annihilate me and that I must flee at all costs, I now know that I will survive to try again. I can attempt to stay awake and aware and learn from the experience. And to wonder where it will take me next.
What is your word teaching you this month?