Mining for Silver Linings

“So you think that you’re a failure do you?  Well, you probably are.  What’s wrong with that?  In the first place, if you’ve any sense at all you must have learned by now that we pay just as dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats.  Go ahead and fail.  But fail with wit, fail with grace, fail with style.  A mediocre failure is as insufferable as a mediocre success.  Embrace failure! Seek it out.  Learn to love it.  That may be the only way any of us will ever be free.”

~Tom Robbins Even Cowgirls Get The Blues

The seductions of fate don’t always leave us unscathed. But given enough time, a healthy application of the Great Secret, and some honest reflection, any mistake can be alchemized into gold.

My own greatest failing left me exiled from my favorite country, stranded alone on a foreign continent, and dropped into uncertainty without friend or acquaintance for half a world around me. I had nowhere to go, and no way to get anywhere. Plan A crumbled en route. And I’d left Plan B in my nightstand back home. I’d lost everything but my small black backpack and my enduring capacity to shrug off conflict. I didn’t know it at the time, but the progeny of this abysmal defeat would blossom into an awakening worth every penny lost and every second wasted.

It took more than six months to appreciate fully, but the most egregious failing of my life returned a lining of sterling with value beyond estimation. The upside was so considerable, in fact, it caused me question my perception of failure, and the virtues it contains.

Failure is the misunderstood older brother of Success. He’s blunt and harsh, but his tarnished reputation is really only a result of the years of conditioning we receive as children in academia. For most children, the fear of failure becomes greater than the love of truth.

The ceaseless progression of school teaches children to despise failure as a blemish that can never be removed, as something they can never go back and fix. Every botched assignment, missed homework, and failed test bleeds red indelibly on the canvas of their educational performance. The years of enmity cultivate a menacing sentiment towards Failure with roots that run deep. Consequently, most people carry their hatred of Failure long after their graduation gowns have been eaten by moths.

The depth of this aversion varies, naturally, from person to person, but most avoid failure with at least the same zeal as they would a puddle of vomit in a gas station restroom. This is a world that depicts failure as an evil, yet few realize or admit that Success often closes as many doors as Failure.

The lesson to fear failure extends beyond the boundaries of the classroom, though. In the pageantry of ego, foolishness is inevitably paired with failure. Years after teaching rubrics and lesson plans have faded from our lives, failure remains ominous by the threat of appearing foolish or inept. In sad prophetic self-fulfillment, the fear of failing in front of others can itself invite failure.

The detached loathing of poor grades is one thing, but when hating failure becomes personal, when our sense of personal worth depends on success, it is truly baneful. To fail in this case is to endure a loss of self esteem. Fear of failure this deep is a parasite that spawns doubt and restricts initiative. Fear of failure this deep needs curbing.

Fear of failure acts as a binding influence. It plunges us into a future branded with the inescapable question, “What if?” If we are to conquer this fear, we have to redefine what failure actually means.

So what is failure really? What are its actual impacts on our lives? And what are its overlooked benefits?

Failure appears whenever an intended outcome does not manifest. It’s in the air when your wadded up ball of paper arcs left of the rubbish bin. It reflects off the glasses of a college admissions director when he inks his “REJECTED” stamp. It’s in the sweat of every fourth place finisher in the Olympic games. These failures are made unequal only by the disparate emotional significance invested in each of them. But to Failure’s cold accounting, each earns him a mark.

The sting of failure, then, comes from the shattered desire and expectation we’d constructed around the deed in question. Blame can be used as a shield, but doing so only converts the caustic emotional energy into resentment. It doesn’t eliminate it.

Usually though, we attribute the cause of the failure to ourselves; at least partially. We deride ourselves for foolish thinking. We scold ourselves for making shortsighted decisions. We hold our past selves to our present-minded standards. But, insulated from the heat of the moment, the bar we set for our past selves will always be unreasonably high.

This is an important point. All the fixating we do over past mistakes can be halted by understanding that nothing we have ever done could have possibly been done differently. Every poor decision, foolish action, and ill conceived venture was made, performed, and undertaken with the limited information, and emotional pressures, present at the time. Reflecting years later with greater wisdom and a placid disposition does not translate into the possibility of a different possible course.

This ‘inevitability clause’ can help prevent fixating on past actions, but it does little to quell the regret and embarrassment we’ve already reaped from the past. But consider that our heaviest mistakes, the ones that we spend nights lying awake examining from every possible angle, are ones we have little left to learn from. All lessons have been wrung from those tattered rags. All that’s left is to forgive our past selves for being foolish, or naive, or inept, or weak.

Only the most arrogant or prideful would deny weakness in themselves. If you can humbly admit these qualities in yourself, you are equipped to unchain yourself from the regret caused by past mistakes.

But wait… some perceptive readers might suggest that past mistakes don’t only hurt by the dark halls they lead to, but also by the doors they slammed shut. Some failures divert us away from sought-after goals. They are doubly lamentable for the goals they’ve left unfulfilled.

Every failure diverts us down a different path in life. So every single failure, along with every success, that each of us has ever experienced has molded us into who we are this moment. To lament what could have been is to disparage the person you are. This means that every success was partially a result of every failure that preceded it. And ultimately, it’s time spent reaping the rewards of a new path that allows us to accept the failure that lead us down it. Failure and Success, it would seem, are dueling pool cues constantly deflecting us into the unfathomable side and corner pockets of life.

Failure is a part of life, and cannot be avoided, nor should it be. Because the truth is that failure grows. Failure teaches, and motivates the strong of heart to move forward. Failure exposes us to opportunities that would otherwise be closed off. And all these things are valuable consolations taken from setback. Sometimes the consolation in failure is worth more than the bounty that success would have brought. The trick is seeing the silver in the smoke and rubble of catastrophic failure. That silver lining is hidden to those fixating on loss.

Would I be better off if success replaced every failure in my life? In some aspects, maybe, but I’d be less developed in others. Of course replacing one past failure would only plunge me down another life path punctuated by other, possibly more, failures. It’s not worth the mental energy fixating on alternatives that never occurred. The ‘what ifs’ of life are junk food fantasies I try to avoid.

So I’ve warmed up to Failure. His stories are better, more full of life and depth. Failure opens up my worldview, adds spice to my life, makes me tougher. Failure does more than Success to help me grow into the person I want to be.

…and he always brings silver.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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