Uncommon Common Sense – March 2014


By Bill Frayer

Failure Is Not What It Seems


Bill-Frayer-2010Failure came to me in the eighth grade. I remember vividly.  I loved sports and played football, wrestled, and ran track. I did none of these particularly well, but I had a lot of enthusiasm. I looked up to the jocks for whom athletic feats seemed to come effortlessly.

At the end of every season, we had an athletic awards assembly where letters were presented to the best athletes. Every time I dreamed of walking onto the stage and accepting my green fuzzy letter and having my mom sew it on my jacket. And every time, I did not get a letter. I remember walking home from school once after these repeated humiliating failures in tears.  At the moment, it seemed as though my entire life was a failure. 

Of course, it wasn’t.  I grew up to become a successful college teacher, a competent writer, a reasonably good parent and husband, and I even made a few nice quilts by hand.  I hope I am a good friend, but I will never be a superior athlete.  Alas. 

In the Opinionator blog in the New York Times, Costica Bradatan illustrates the idea of certain failure with a photo from Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal” in which Antonius Block, played by Max von Sydow, challenges Death to a game of chess.  Of course, nobody wins a match with Death, so the question is, why enter into an activity which is destined to end in failure. 

Well, as Bradatan points out, we will all end in failure, ultimately.  We will all die, and after a few generations, no one will likely remember us. In fact, our sun will eventually burn out, and our entire planet will be thrust into permanent oblivion. 

So, then, what’s the point?  If failure is likely, or even inevitable, why do we persist? For one thing, failure reminds us of the imperfect nature of life.  Life reveals itself to us not as it should be, or as we want it to be, but as it simply is.  We regularly live under the illusion that we can control our lives, make good things happen.  To some degree this is true, but not always.  We eventually understand that everything does not work out. We will fail sometimes, but we will go on and even prosper.  This is the wisdom of aging.  As we travel through our life, we experience many failures, but we live through them. 

Ultimately, failure is necessary to our very development. For it is the struggle to succeed which gives our life purpose and color. Those of us who write struggle to come up with good stories or poems knowing that we are unlikely to achieve great financial success.  But though we may fail in that conventional respect, we may succeed in other ways. Connecting with others on some level, and even achieving personal integrity with your work is success. 

The greatest failure is in not trying to succeed because you are afraid you will fail. None of us will succeed at life, ultimately.  We may succeed in some areas, but that success often grows out of a long history of persisting in the face of multiple failures.  Just ask Thomas Edison, Franklin Roosevelt, or Mahatma Gandhi. They were each masters at failure, at first. 

I have accepted that my attempts to become a proficient athlete were probably futile. By this stage, we all have a long list of failures, but we also have the wisdom to see how each contributed to our eventual success.  Failure usually doesn’t last.

Ojo Del Lago
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