If there is one thing we can all be said to have in common, it is suffering. I’m just saying what many people say (in more and less admirable ways). To live is for things to be bad, sometimes; and sometimes for things to be very bad indeed.
And certainly failure – or what looks on the surface, at least, like failure – is part of that suffering. I will venture to guess that nobody likes being wrong, forgetting something, or (as is far too often the case for me) saying the wrong thing. These are merely three examples in what I imagine would be a near-endless litany of our personal and public drawbacks, were I to crowd-source a list. When I do blunder (usually, for me, in saying the wrong thing, or being convinced that I have done), I feel, in quick succession: exposed, overwrought, anxious, shameful. I want to disappear from the earth, for it to swallow me whole, to speak in a succession of clichés.
So. Failure. Exposure. Also called being human, and I often don’t like it.
The challenge, I think, is to turn towards failure, towards the thing that makes us feel sad, or unworthy, or even entitled (I did everything I thought I had to! And it still didn’t turn out!). Turning towards it looks like, for me anyway: oh, I said the wrong thing. I feel stupid. I am sorry you feel stupid (yes, I begin talking to myself); I am sure many people also feel this way.
In other words, at least part of turning towards (what I might think of as) failure is that moment of recognition: the knowledge that we all feel these ways, sometimes. And in that recognition, sitting with our lack of specialness, with all that we have in common with everyone else, rather than what sets us apart (this is hard for me; I am a four). And knowing that for all of us, mistakes have consequences, and I think I’m on pretty solid ground when I say that nobody likes that. But the consequences – and how we handle them – are part of failure and of self-compassion, too.
What I think failure, paradoxically, achieves: it reminds us that no one is perfect. This statement is obvious, but then so are a lot of things we tend to forget about. We could stand to gain a lot by sitting with the way our mistakes knit us together: we are responsible for them, we bear the consequences, we suffer – and those mistakes invite us to move on with a more capacious, generous sense of what it means to be a participant in the world.
And often enough, what I call failure in my own life my partner and friends would not. Throughout this post, I have been making implicit assumptions about what constitutes failure, even using “failure” interchangeably with “mistake,” taking failure’s seemingly unbending nature as characteristic of any blunder. But most of the time, these lapses do not amount to “A thing or person that proves unsuccessful” or “The fact of becoming exhausted or running short, giving way under trial, breaking down in health, declining in strength or activity.” Though we bear the consequences and can’t turn back time, most of the time, we bear our mistakes, accept the outcomes, and prove successful, resilient, even joyful.
These moments of “misapprehension, misunderstanding; error, misjudgement” remind us that we, too, are human: how imperfect, how prone to mistakes, and how lovely anyway.