May 29, 2004

on Failure


Success has escaped me for most of my adult life. Not that I have had no success at all. I've had some. I've even done one particular thing, really well, for a short time. Or I've done a lot of things, for a very long time, only so-so. I could claim my dilemma is that I'm so multi-talented it's been hard to choose between one thing and another. But really, it's just a form of sloth; defeat by abdication. It's easy to fantasize how incredible you'd be "if only" ... rather than going for it and finding out for sure.

If you lark about long enough, the verdict comes in without your vote. Such was the case in most areas of my life over the last year. Love, career, home, even faith. Everything I believed in, everything I relied on for security and identity went bankrupt. I felt angry, betrayed, abandoned, rejected. Especially by God. Then I felt embarrassed and ashamed for my contributions to the state of affairs. Which was probably 95%. It's only now starting to seem funny. But for the most part, sucked to be me.

One of the benefits of failure is, you get to see who you really are and what your heart looks like. I'd recommend this experience like I'd recommend a coffee colonic. It is a grotesque and painful experience. But in the end, the shizznit comes izznout. It's a horrible relief.

Then you get to ask yourself some things. Like, of the persons places and things you relied upon, how necessary were they? How did your expectations exceed the capability of the person place or thing? In other words, just how big a bitch were you? How did I get here? This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful car. My God. What Have I Done?

Another side benefit. When everything gets taken away and you realize, "Wow. I'm still alive;" you experience relief and freedom. And then actually, perhaps those desires of yours (before ambition sullied them) might be okay. Like, the desire for love, safety, accomplishment or creativity. Doing them for the joy of doing them might actually be a good thing (unless your joy is in prostitution or theft).

CS Lewis, that slouch, wrote a letter to a friend, when his publishing credits had yet only amounted to a few essays and poems.

From the age of sixteen onwards I had one single ambition (to succeed as a writer), from which I never wavered, in the prosecution of which I spent every ounce I could, on which I really and deliberately staked my whole contentment: and I recognize myself as having unmistakably failed in it. The side of me which longs … to be approved as a writer, is not worth much. And unless God has abandoned us, he will find means to cauterize that side somehow or other. If we can take the pain well and truly now and by it *forever* get over the wish to be distinguished beyond our fellows, well: if not we shall get it again in some other form.

Being cured, with all the pain, has pleasure too: one creeps home, tired and bruised, into a state of mind that is really restful, when all one's ambitions have been given up. Then one can really for the first time say "Thy kingdom come": for in that kingdom a man must have reached the stage of not caring two straws about his status before he can enter it. Think how difficult that would be if one "succeeded" as a writer: how bitter this necessary purgation at the age of sixty, when literary success has made your whole life and you *then* had to go through the stage of seeing it all as dust and ashes.

Word.' I often prayed that God would purge me of my selfish desires, that I would want His will above all things ... so THEN he could bless me with fulfillment of those selfish desires. Like the way Solomon asked for wisdom, and received wisdom AND booty.

Maybe this necessary leveling of my ego will get me a step closer to humility. But frankly, the older I get the more I realize how "full of it" it I am. And how often I need those coffee colonics. Spiritual and otherwise.